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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, August 2, 2019

Eating out just got REAL healthy




It’s 4 p.m. on a Friday and 1885 Grill has just opened its doors. Despite the early hour, the dinner crowd at the St. Elmo eatery is already taking shape, with hungry patrons eager to sample the restaurant’s southern coastal fare.

Before long, servers are bringing plates of salmon and baby kale salad and ribeye steak with freshly grilled vegetables to the tables. Children seated beside their parents can be seen munching on grilled chicken and washing down their meals with sips of apple juice.

This same scenario is taking place in restaurants throughout Chattanooga, with the only visible differences being the kind of cuisine available and the price. But at 1885 Grill and a handful of other establishments, there’s another difference that might not be immediately evident.

These restaurants have labored behind the scenes to serve food that meets a high standard of nutrition and to operate in a manner that tends not only to the health of their patrons but to their community as a whole.

The external source from which this local movement has sprung is Eat REAL, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that’s striving to increase the consumption of healthier foods and beverages.

Similar to the LEED Green Building Certification, Eat REAL uses a points-based audit that’s implemented with the help of registered dieticians. The review process is extensive and includes menu analysis, supply chain verification, interviews and more.

Restaurants and other foodservice providers that earn enough points are able to become REAL Certified. To date, more than 500 establishments nationwide have earned the Eat REAL certification.

Locally, six restaurants have become REAL Certified, including Lupi’s Pizza, Hummingbird Pastaria, Naked Foods, Vibrant Meals, Frothy Monkey and 1885 Grill. Funded by a Project Diabetes grant from the Tennessee Department of Health, Eat REAL worked with each establishment to improve its nutrition standards.

Tara Imoto, manager of 1885 Grill, calls the certification process “eye-opening.” Working with Kathy Combs, a registered dietician from Nashville, Imoto and executive chef Sara White dug deep into their supply chain. Imoto was initially surprised by how little she knew about where the restaurant acquires its ingredients.

“We knew where many of our vegetables are grown but we didn’t know where our salmon comes from or how it’s raised,” she says.

Combs challenged Imoto and White to find out. During their research, they were pleased to discover 1885 Grill’s salmon comes from a reputable source: Bakkafrost in Scotland.

Founded in 1968, Bakkafrost provides “tasty and healthy salmon while focusing on sustainable production and fish welfare,” says the company’s website.

To that end, Bakkafrost nourishes its salmon with feed produced from fish oil cleansed of environmental pollutants. In addition, the company is the proud owner of the first salmon farm in Scotland’s Faroe islands to become ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) certified, which means they’ve made strides to reduce the environmental impact of the farm.

ASC certified salmon farms are also required to routinely measure various water parameters, such as phosphorus and oxygen levels, and remain within set limits.

Digging deeper into 1885 Grill’s offerings, Combs challenged the restaurant to shake up its children’s menu.

As part of its effort to become Eat REAL certified, the establishment added grilled shrimp and apple slices to its selections for younger eaters and are pairing those meals with drinks containing 50 grams or less of sugar per 12 ounces, such as water, milk, apple juice and lemonade.

“We saw our kids meals as a huge area of opportunity,” Imoto says.

There were challenges along the way, Imoto adds. Often, she’d contact a vendor but not obtain the information she needed, which required her to continue digging. While on one such excursion, she learned the chicken 1885 Grill purchases from Springer Mountain Farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains is antibiotic free and American Humane Certified.

The details on their steaks were harder to track down. “We buy some of our cuts from a farm in Alabama, and the smaller farms there don’t necessarily have the certifications you’d want because they have to pay for them,” Imoto adds. “But they still offer a great product.”

After a two-month process that included identifying opportunities and then meeting the criteria for certification (Combs even challenged White to begin preparing all her soup stocks in-house), 1885 Grill earned enough points to become REAL certified.

Even better, Imoto notes, the restaurant met the higher standards of Eat REAL without increasing its prices. “We wanted to increase our food standards while staying in our price range,” Imoto says.

Although Imoto was initially overwhelmed when she saw the list of changes 1885 Grill would need to make to become certified, she says the process was easier than she’d anticipated. “It looks hard at first because you do have to change a lot of things, but at the end of the day, they’re small things that make a big difference.”

Nikkole Turner, the Eat REAL Tennessee program director, travels throughout the state developing partnerships with food service establishments and organizations that share the mission of Eat REAL Tennessee. She says she was impressed with 1885 Grill’s efforts to become certified.

“1885 Grill was dedicated to the change plan and shifting the way it operates, and made significant policy changes and changes to how it makes decisions,” she explains. “What’s more, it was able to achieve the certification in two months, which was extraordinary.”

Turner was just as impressed with the restaurant’s ability to maintain its original price points. “A lot of restaurants are buying food from the same place and then putting a different spin on it. But 1885 Grill is making different choices about where they buy their food and are trying to stay within their traditional price point.

“They’re going above and beyond to provide higher quality food for the same price, which says a lot about their values and who they are.”

“We’re doing this out of a sense of responsibility as a small business in our community,” Imoto adds. “Whether anyone notices or not, we want to be responsible.”

Eat REAL Tennessee received two consecutive three-year grants from the Department of Health to help stem the state’s diabetes epidemic. “The state wanted to see how effective an organization like Eat REAL would be in convincing private food services to make changes based on achieving certification,” Turner says.

About 806,000 people in Tennessee, or 14.6% of the adult population, have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Foundation. In addition, around 1.7 million people in Tennessee, or 35.8% of the adult population, have blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes.

In addition, an estimated 39,000 people in Tennessee are diagnosed with diabetes every year.

Eat REAL Tennessee worked with Chattanooga’s foodservice providers during its second round of funding. The organization sought restaurants that were already adhering to the philosophies behind the proposed certifications as well as foodservice providers that believed in Eat REAL’s ideals but needed help achieving certification.

“Some of our early adopters in Chattanooga were already aligned with our ideals. Naked Foods and Vibrant Meals are newer in the city but their main objective is providing healthy food,” Turner says. “1885 Grill wanted to get there but needed guidance.”

The REAL Certification is based on four pillars, with each letter in the acronym representing one of the pillars.

“R” stands for “Responsible” nutrition; “E” stands for “Epicurean,” which involves eliminating the harmful ingredients used to make processed foods; “A” stands for “Agriculture” that’s healthy for the economy and the environment; and “L” stands for “Leadership,” which entails demonstrating best practices and enabling better choices, Turner points out.

Eat REAL Tennessee tackled each of these pillars as it worked with foodservice providers in Chattanooga, with its mandate from the state’s Project Diabetes grant often guiding its efforts. For example, under the “Responsible” category, the organization asked restaurants to consider their policies surrounding sugar-sweetened beverages.

“We don’t want any restaurant with our certification to serve anything with more than 50 grams of added sugar per serving,” Turner says. “You can drink sweet tea, but it needs to be formulated so you’re not getting 12 spoonfuls of sugar per glass.”

Eat REAL also wanted restaurants to make a full serving of fresh fruits or vegetables available with each entree. “Fresh” meant deep-fried or sweetened vegetables (including two beloved Southern delicacies – fried green tomatoes and fried okra) wouldn’t count.

When it came to the kid’s menus, Eat REAL Tennessee asked restaurants to avoid automatically pairing a sugar-sweetened drink with an entree. Also, the REAL Certification calls for the elimination of deep-fried items from children’s menus. (As a scratch kitchen, 1885 Grill can still make fried chicken and shrimp for children whose parents request it.)

After all was said and done, 1885 Grill was not only serving salmon and baby kale salad but salmon raised in the fjords of Scotland by a conscientious provider and baby kale salad made from locally-sourced vegetables.

Turner is proud of all of Chattanooga’s REAL Certified restaurants and says she hopes the people who dine at Lupi’s Pizza, Hummingbird Pastaria, Naked Foods, Vibrant Meals, Frothy Monkey and 1885 Grill will spread the word about the changes that have taken place.

“We promote transparency but we’re not like the Health Department in that our restaurants have to post their score,” Turner says. “We believe the patrons of these restaurants will educate others about what’s taken place, and the public will in turn better understand their favorite restaurants and ultimately support restaurants that share these values.

“There are people who want to spend their money at places that care about their local community. They see that some foodservice providers don’t want to change and are causing health problems in their community.”

In two years, Combs will return to Chattanooga to challenge 1885 Grill to make more changes in order to become recertified. Imoto says the restaurant will be considering its sources of steak and looking at what it can do differently.

The Project Diabetes grant ended in June. As Eat REAL Tennessee seeks to further impact the state’s food systems and improve the health of Tennesseans based on how these systems operate, it’s going to focus more on youth and children.

“Our next phase will involve focusing these same philosophies on school food,” Turner acknowledges.

In the meantime, Turner is looked forward to the day when the public at large embraces the values espoused by Eat REAL Tennessee. “Eat REAL Tennessee is a great solution for Tennesseans who support a culture focused on improving the nutritional content.”