In El Paso, a largely Latino city located at the southwestern tip of Texas near the Mexico border, the Latino cultural influence can be found in architecture, décor, events—and especially food. But city residents struggle with high rates of obesity and related diseases, including diabetes. A new restaurant initiative is encouraging local businesses to help children in the community make healthier choices when dining out. One local restaurant owner in particular, who was unhappy with what his own kids were stuck ordering on kids’ menus around town, set out to prove that creating a healthy, tasty kids’ menu can be easy to do and good for business.
Awareness: During a Sunday dinner out with his kids, Jesus Roybal was shocked at what he saw on the kids’ menu.
“It was all fried, you know, it was horrible—and I was going to pay for it!” he said.
Roybal owns his own local Mexican food restaurant, Mambo’s, which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as snacks. His restaurant didn’t have a kids menu, but with hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos, and enchiladas as top sellers on the menu, kids had few healthy options besides fruit cups and side salads designed specifically for them.
His experience out to dinner with his kids made him begin considering how he might provide healthier options at his own restaurant.
Local public health officials were well aware of unhealthy menus at restaurants around town.
“Almost 50% of the food budget in a household ends up going to eating out,” said Joy Leos of the El Paso Department of Public Health. She says the obesity statistics in El Paso mirror that of Texas; one in three children are overweight or obese. “Eating out is a huge issue here in El Paso.”
Learn: There was already a lot of city-wide support for healthy living changes in El Paso; folks were really beginning to work on changing the environment so the next generation of kids wouldn’t be limited in spaces to play or fresh vegetables to eat, Leos said.
“When you want to have an environmental impact, you have to look at everything,” Leos said. “And restaurants are a big portion of that.”
Many mom-and-pop restaurants don’t have the resources or the time to create, market, and sustain additional healthy menu options, said Leos.
The department of public health began brainstorming ways to encourage local restaurants to add healthier options, especially for kids. They decided to go out and talk with local restaurant owners to see if they would be interested in working with the city on something like this.
“There was a big resounding, ‘Yes,’ from our restaurants locally,” Leos said.
Frame Issue: After positive initial feedback, public health staff began exploring factors that would be in a menu program, like nutrition guidelines, marketing, and administrative aspects.
The city wanted to develop a free, voluntary program that would help restaurants that were willing to increase the nutritional value of their kids’ menus. The program would offer support in improving the revising the nutritional content of kids’ entrées and side dishes, using healthier cooking methods, and offering lower-calorie beverages.
It would also provide graphic design for kids’ menus, and free publicity for participating restaurants.
Public health officials put these ideas into a proposal and received a Healthy Eating Active Living grant through the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to get the Eat Well! El Paso Restaurant Initiative off the ground.
The grant helped officials to bring in nutrition professionals to craft nutritional standards for new kids’ menu items modeled after already-existing standards, like the national standards for school lunch.
Education/Mobilization: After the administrative side was in order, public health staff began reaching out to local restaurant owners to see if they would be interested in participating.
As luck would have it, a staff member reached out to Roybal the day after his disaster with kids’ meals.
He was very enthusiastic about implementing the healthy kids’ meal policy at his restaurant, which didn’t have a kids’ menu before the restaurant initiative. Roybal was willing to create one with the help of nutrition professionals.
To receive nutrition consultations, graphic design help for new kids’ menus, and free promotion and publicity, restaurants must agree to two program-wide standards.
First, they must agree to not promote or serve any sugar-sweetened beverages on their kids’ menus; only 100% juice, reduced-fat milk, unsweetened tea, and water.
“If they want to serve an agua fresca, they can do that, but we ask that they not add sugar,” Leos said.
The second mandatory standard is that meals must be kid-sized portions, which the dieticians go over when they meet with restaurant owners.
Debate: Restaurant owners, based on their capacity and commitment, choose one of three levels at which to participate in the program.
For the bronze level, a restaurant must meet the aforementioned program-wide standards and offer one fruit or one vegetable as a side dish option.
For the silver level, they must offer two or more vegetables as sides and one full healthy kids’ entrée.
For the gold level, they must offer three or more fruits and vegetables as sides and at least two full healthy kids’ entrées.
Leos says that most restaurants choose gold.
The owners say, “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it full-blast,” Leos said.
She called it a learning opportunity for the owners.
“We’ve had people say, ‘We’ve always been curious about the nutrition breakdown of what we’re serving but we didn’t know how to get it…I’m just a lady who’s cooked for 20 or 30 years in my house,’” Leos said.
Roybal decided he wanted to go big and chose the gold level.
“I don’t want to sell junk; it’s quality over quantity,” he said.
Activation: Because Mambo’s did not have a kids’ menu before the restaurant initiative, one needed to be designed. Working with the nutrition professional was easy, Roybal said.
A few quick meetings gave Mambo’s a healthy, kid-friendly menu.
“I’m super busy, all day every day….she accommodated to my schedule,” he said.
Next, it was time to make the menu look as great as the food in it would taste.
Roybal worked with a graphic designer provided by Eat Well! El Paso to create a new, eye-catching kids’ menu.
“It was my logo and they kind of blended the colors…it was cool,” said Roybal.
On the back of all the kids’ menus of all the participating restaurants is a section about Eat Well! El Paso, letting the community know why each restaurant wants to participate in the program and “open dialogue” about healthy eating, Leos said.
Frame Policy: When a restaurant signs on to Eat Well! El Paso’s restaurant initiative, the owner signs a non-binding agreement with the El Paso Department of Public Health.
The agreement commits the department to arrange all meetings at convenient times, pay for the consultations with the registered nurse and the graphic designer, print the number of menus the restaurant requests, provide promotional material, and continue promoting the restaurant through press releases, stickers, signs, newspaper promotion, and other media outlets.
The owners commit to complete the project, meet with nutrition professionals to create the new menu, meet the minimum nutritional standards, participate in an online nutrition course, and pick a level of participation.
The owner signs, Leos signs, and the community gets a whole lot healthier.
Change: In early September 2013, Mambo’s, along with four other local restaurants, became the first Eat Well! El Paso restaurants to launch their healthy kids’ menus.
“We’ve got a hamburger that is less than 500 calories,” said Roybal.
You won’t find any mayonnaise on the bun, “but it’s got the good juicy stuff,” he said, like fresh tomatoes. The hamburger comes with juice, fruit, and a side salad
Roybal also offers:
- Entomatadas (a dish similar to enchiladas) with whole beans, rice, side salad, and a fruit cup;
- Chicken tacos with whole beans, rice, side salad, and a fruit cup; and
- Options for the fruit cups to include fresh watermelon, cantaloupe, and pineapple.
Implementation: Mambo’s new kids’ menus are popular so far, as the restaurant’s kitchen is busy cutting fruit, tearing lettuce, and grilling up healthy meals.
But Roybal has been noticing something interesting: adults are ordering the healthy kids’ meals, too.
With options under 500 calories and cheaper than $5, adults who are watching their weight are opting for the smaller, healthier options. Roybal doesn’t mind.
“I don’t care how much I sell, I want to sell good, healthy food,” he said.
Equity: The health department continues to promote the Eat Well! El Paso restaurants in the local paper, online, and at community events. Some restaurants are doing cooking demonstrations at local events, giving them more visibility and a chance to show the neighborhood how delicious healthy foods can really be.
Sustainability: Roybal would tell any restaurant owner that making healthy changes is not only worthwhile, it’s easy.
“All you have to do is instead of serving French fries, you serve fruit; instead of serving soda, you serve juice,” he said. “It’s not hard at all.”
Leos is optimistic about the future.
“If people know that the options are there, they are more willing to take advantage of it.”
She is proud to see the meals of the El Paso culture getting healthier.
“Everyone is like, ‘Oh, Mexican food is so bad for you,’” she said. “But it’s not really. It just takes tweaking in the kitchen a little bit—not frying things, not using lard.”
Roybal, who eats the food at his restaurant regularly, said he is happy to be serving healthy meals to the kids in his community.
“I’m very proud of being part of the program,” he said. “It was pretty easy to make the switch.”
This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
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