Tucson restaurants help battle obesity with healthy dining program

Tucson diners will now be able to go out on the town while still paying attention to calories. Twenty-seven restaurant owners joined nutritional experts earlier this month to launch the “Smart Choices for Healthy Dining” program.

The program is one of the crowning achievements of the $16 million grant against obesity secured in March 2010 by Merrill Eisenberg, a medical anthropologist and assistant professor at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health (see https://azjewishpost.com/ 2011/ua-professor-spearheads-16-million-grant-against-obesity/).

The “Pima County Communities Putting Prevention to Work” grant was funded as part of a national initiative by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant will end next month with a celebration at the “Healthy Pima Conference: Communities Putting Prevention to Work — Today & Tomorrow” on Friday, March 16 from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Westin La Paloma Resort. The free conference includes a healthy breakfast, lunch and presentations on making healthy living easier.

“I’m very proud of this new healthy dining program,” says Eisenberg. To participate in Smart Choices, a restaurant must have at least three menu items with no more than 700 calories, 30 percent of calories from fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 1,000 milligrams sodium, and no artificial trans-fats. A list of participating restaurants is at http://healthypima.org/ SmartChoices/HealthyDining.aspx.

Urban agriculture is another vital focus of the grant, says Eisenberg. “We’ve raised awareness in the community about how people eat and increasing opportunities for people to grow their own food,” she explains. “We’re working closely with the cities of Tucson and South Tucson to change the zoning laws.”

Although the grant will be ending soon, “we’ve tried to find homes for programs to continue,” says Eisenberg. The Pima County Food Systems Alliance, one of the organizations set up by the CPPW grant, is currently run by volunteers but is seeking funding. The alliance has started produce bars in local schools to serve fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Work done nationally by [First Lady] Michelle Obama and others has raised consciousness in communities and created environments receptive to our work,” she says.

As for Eisenberg, 62, she will retire on March 19, the day after the CPPW grant ends.

“I’ll continue to work on zoning issues as part of the leadership council on the Food Systems Alliance,” she says. “I’ll also work as an advocate for people with disabilities.”

For more information and to RSVP by March 1 for the Healthy Pima Conference, visit ­healthypimaconferencersvp.org.