LEE -- Local health officials, through a multimedia campaign, have stepped up efforts to promote healthier eating at area restaurants in an attempt to combat obesity and related illnesses.
The Tri-Town Health Department has expanded publicity of its Healthy Dining Program that includes more than 60 eateries and institutions in Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Pittsfield. Program participants create menus that will encourage their customers to develop better eating habits, according to the James J. Wilusz, the agency's director.
Wilusz says the added publicity includes an outline of the program on Tri-Town's revamped website and an online video featuring five restaurant owners. Coming soon will be profiles of program participants and a monthly local cable television show.
"We're trying to re-energize the program as we build a bigger base to create public awareness of healthy eating through restaurants," he said. "We are bringing healthier choices to the forefront."
Unveiled nearly two years ago, the healthy dining initiative is part of Tri-Town's "Be Well Berkshire" initiative being funded through Massachusetts Department of Public Health's "Mass in Motion" program. Armed with $82,000 in state and federal grants for through fiscal 2016, the agency has an overall campaign to promote healthier lifestyles through exercise, avoiding tobacco products as well as better eating habits.
Several restaurant owners already enrolled in the "Be Well Berkshires" program say they did so because it fits their philosophy of dining out.
Dawn LaRochelle says she opened Perigee in South Lee four years ago with fresh, healthy dinners from the start.
"I don't make a big deal of it because I have a menu to please just about everyone," said LaRochelle.
"Part of our reputation is we make healthy food," added David Barile, chef/owner of On a Roll in downtown Pittsfield. "You can tell by reading the menu the items aren't out of a box."
Local health officials say they are also concerned about the quantity and quality of food Berkshirites are consuming.
A state-sponsored health assessment study in 2010 found that 19.8 percent of Berkshire residents were obese, contributing to 23 percent of the population having high blood pressure.
While the statistics haven't significantly changed in three years, Wilusz says consumers are having an attitude adjustment toward eating out.
"More and more people are asking for healthy choices at restaurants," he said.
Local restaurateurs who respond to consumer demand are the ones who remain successful, according the Healthy Dining participants.
"[Menus] almost have to change given the health concerns in this county," Barile noted.
LaRochelle believes eventually healthy menu items will become as commonplace as no smoking in all eateries.
"If nothing else, restaurants will respond to what customers want, or go out of business," she said.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233.