CHICAGO | Chicago, a city that likes its deep-dish pizza and cheese fries, hasn't been spared by the wave of obesity that has swept across the nation over the past few decades.
But a new restaurant-focused health initiative called F.I.T. (Fresh, Innovative, Tasty) City aims to combat the worsening epidemic.
Chicago chefs, restaurateurs and public health officials gathered at the Union League Club of Chicago early last week to celebrate a new enterprise that promotes healthy living by enlisting restaurants around the city to offer more healthy, nutritious and locally sourced food items on their menus.
F.I.T. City is an effort of Building a Healthier Chicago, a collaborative of public health and medical professionals that works to improve the health of Chicagoans through a variety of medical, business and community programs.
The new initiative comes at a time when Americans continue to eat a significant portion of their meals outside their homes.
In spite of the prolonged economic downturn, recent polls show that American adults are still dining out an average of 4.8 times per week. That means restaurants play a key role in determining the kind of food people have access to.
F.I.T. City hopes that by supporting restaurants that offer healthy dining options, it can improve the chances that Chicagoans will order a nutritious meal.
Restaurants "should be a cornerstone of the community," Dr. James M. Galloway, assistant surgeon general with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said at Monday's launch party. "If there's a way that we can make outstanding and incredibly diverse food in a healthier mode for those community foundations, then we have a substantial opportunity to impact the weight of the nation."
Restaurants around the city can apply free of charge for "F.I.T. City designation" if they can meet a set of strict menu criteria.
To be considered for F.I.T. City designation, restaurants must offer two menu items, other than a salad, whose main ingredients are fresh fruits and vegetables and two menu items that feature whole grains as a main ingredient.
Among other requirements, restaurants cannot use any artificial trans fats and must use only plant-based cooking oils, such as olive, canola or peanut oil.
Though the application process has been open for only a few months, 34 Chicago restaurants already have earned F.I.T. City certification. Designees range from fine-dining establishments like Trattoria No. 10 to Freshii and other in-and-out lunch destinations.
"We've been working on defining these criteria for almost two and a half years that would allow us to reach into restaurants in impoverished communities and allow them to stretch to reach the goal, while at the same time, allowing the most well-known restaurants in Chicago to meet them as well," Galloway said.
The criteria also serve to educate Chicagoans about the importance of paying attention to the kinds of food they put in their bodies, according to Joelle Rabion, a nutrition counselor for The Green Gourmet Chicago, a gourmet meal delivery service and F.I.T. City member.
"People often go out to eat and frequently don't know what they're ingesting," Rabion said. "It could be made with bad oils or with saturated fat. By creating an initiative like this, it's endorsing the idea that we really need to pay attention to what's going into our body because that really impacts how we feel."
F.I.T. City also recommends that chefs and restaurateurs use locally grown produce, meats and seafood, whenever possible.
"The environmental impact of food is greater than any of the other components that a restaurant uses," said Eloise Karlatiras, president and CEO of the Green Chicago Restaurant Coalition, a F.I.T. City organizational partner.
"What we're hoping to do," she said, "is to enrich the local food system by really looking closely at the environmental and health benefits of eating these better, locally sourced foods."