Last Thursday, we pulled up to the MDPH Southeast Regional Health Offices Building where two smiling faces came out to greet us.
Mass in Motion New Bedford coordinator Pauline Hamel and Healthy Living Consultant Kim Ferreira then jumped into a car, told us to follow, and began toting us around town. The City was full of surprises – a beautiful peninsula overlooking the water, impressive seaport, historic shipping vessels, and beautiful old homes – but that’s not why we were there. We were there for the FOOD.
In a city with strong cultural roots and traditions, changing eating habits can be tough. But three food establishments, among others, are doing it one step at a time, and their customers are thrilled. We set out to see what these restaurants were all about.
We arrived first at the Center Café, which was a warm, sunny, community gathering spot – primarily a breakfast- and lunch-serving coffee shop. The walls, covered in bright beautiful artwork, feature a new local artist each month. The Owner, Carol Fisher, wasn’t in but Michele Santos was happy to greet us. Michele is the manager and the daily presence, and knows most customers by name. She tells us that nearly everything is made in-house, ensuring the best and freshest ingredients possible. Their menu isn’t huge, but their small changes are having a big impact.
For example, they now use whole wheat flour in muffins and pancakes, offer fruit and homemade baked beans as sides, have many vegetarian options, and stir up homemade lime-rickeys, along with other sweet drinks, made with very little sugar.
“People love the fruit,” says Santos. “It’s funny, when you tell people you offer fruit as a side, they’ll try it. They’ll say, ‘oh, that is so good.’ It’s cool to see them just be open to it, and try it rather than your usual chips. We used to offer just chips, but now they are what people want least. They just go for the beans and fruit.”
St. Luke's Hospital
We were impressed as soon as we walked in. Southcoast Food & Nutrition Manager, Michael Cogliandro, started off by telling us about the daily healthy choice meals, which are complete meals offered at a low cost and include a protein, vegetable, and a starch for under 600 calories and 800 mg of sodium. Other efforts include meatless Mondays with a healthy vegetarian option, nutrition information that’s posted for nearly every item served, and beautiful fruit baskets throughout the café and at checkout. “On Fridays, we do our fish fry, which is traditional for the area,” Michael told us. “But instead of doing a traditional chip, we eliminated the fries and instead, provide baked red potato wedges. It has actually been well-received…it worked out pretty well.”
“Outside of the fish and occasional fries, we do not use the fry-o-lator anymore. We’ve phased it out over the past 6 to 8 months. It flew under the radar for the most part. Maybe a few people have asked for fried chicken, but it hasn’t been as many as anticipated. It just sort of dropped off the menu.”
“New Bedford likes their food and food is love…but everyone’s comments have been very positive. It really has been well-received overall.”
As a hospital, St. Luke’s is also focused on stopping the spread of germs, especially during flu season. To keep their customers as healthy as possible, they repackaged their popular salad bar into individual lettuce bowls along with individually packaged salad toppings. “Part of the flexibility people like is to build their own, make their salad. But how do we make that work in flu season? We came up with a dozen or so items that people can add to their bucket of lettuce and still have the flexibility that they are building their own.” This innovative approach allows customers to make healthy choices without unwanted germs.
Our last stop was at Freestone’s, a bar that has been in downtown New Bedford for more than 30 years. This is a place with a lot of loyal and regular customers, and it was easy to see why.
Freestone’s takes the Healthy Dining Program a step further than most, and actually included a Healthy Options section in the official menu. They offer five items that are Healthy Dining approved:
• Grilled Salmon for 392 calories
• Grilled Chicken Breast for 303 calories
• Light Baked Cod for 444 calories
• The Perfect 6oz Sirloin Steak for 603 calories
• Blackened Ahi Tuna for 368 calories.
We sampled the chicken and salmon, and YUM – they were absolutely delicious! We asked Manager Joe Costa Jr. if he’s seen any interesting trends in customers’ orders.
“An aspect we didn’t even think about, is a lot of older people really love healthy options because they go out to restaurants and the portions are way too big, and these are perfect. Lots of others are ordering these meals – in fact we’re selling about 90 of these meals each week – but the older customers come and pull me aside and say they are so happy we’re doing it.”
He consistently pointed out how important the cooperation and skills of his staff are in their success. “We had to monitor the kitchen staff at first to make sure they didn’t cut corners, but they got it. They are there now. When the slip comes in, we label it as such, it says ‘healthy chicken,’ ‘healthy salmon’ so they see that and it puts them in the mindset of using less, and they know how important it is to us that we stick to it. We don’t want to lie to customers about what they are eating.”
He went on:
“When Kim and Pauline first talked to us about joining the Healthy Dining Program, it seemed like a really good idea to add another aspect to our menu that was enticing to people. You see at some of the chain restaurants that you have these heart healthy options and stuff like that. I’ve had some of those, and I was never really satisfied. It was just bland to me. When I talked to chef here, I said if we are going to do this, we have to do it better than the chains do. More flavor, more variety, plates are going to be pretty and more appetizing.”
And more appetizing they were. We left happy and satisfied, not only with Freestone’s but with the way the entire day went. It was so impressive, to drive through town and have restaurant after restaurant be pointed out as yet another member of New Bedford’s Healthy Dining Program. Fourteen restaurants have joined the program, and more are applying every day. We can’t wait to go back to try a few more, and we thank Kim, Pauline and the rest of Mass in Motion New Bedford for an unforgettable day filled with amazing people, places and food.