Mexican food, pizza, other El Paso dining out options get healthy upgrade

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A program that helps El Paso restaurants modify their menus is making it a little easier for diners to make healthy choices.

Seventeen restaurants have joined the Eat Well! El Paso project in partnership with the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation (PDNHF), the El Paso Department of Public Health, and The University of Texas at El Paso. The program is a part of the PDNHF’s Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) initiative that helps local restaurants put healthier choices on their menus, especially for children.

“With children, healthy eating helps a lot with growth, of the brain and of the whole body” said Michael Kelly, senior program officer for HEAL, “Obesity is something that has been a problem for a long time in America, and its getting worse. Its not getting better.”

The project reaches out to restaurant owners to educate them about the initiative and encourage them to join, said Joy Leos, health project coordinator for Eat Well! El Paso.

She’s even had El Pasoans who have heard about the initiative come to her and ask if she can get the restaurants they frequent involved.

“Its a huge concern and we’re in a crisis right now,” Leos said. “What we need to do is educate parents and try to reach kids at a younger age so they understand healthy versus unhealthy.”

Restaurants like The Pizza Joint, the Healthy Pizza Company, and Los Aguachiles who choose to participate in the program get their menu assessed by a licensed nutritionist.

The nutritionist breaks down the nutrition facts for the menu, then suggests items that can be  added and ways existing items can be made healthier without costing the restaurant too much or adding foods that don’t fit the restaurant’s theme.

Leos said that eateries decide to join the intiative after learning that they can contribute to the health of the community without spending a lot of money, changing their character, or losing customers.

“It just takes a little creativity. Thats where the rest of my team comes in to talk to them,” Leos said.

Participating restaurants also can get free graphic arts help to redesign their menus.

The Pizza Joint’s healthy options include gluten free and vegan pizzas, a wide variety of vegetable toppings and baked – rather than fried – chicken wings.

“Thats the thing with our healthy options, you’re not sacrificing anything. You still get the full flavor,”  said Vinny Baca, a manager at the North Mesa location.

Baca said that people who are not vegan come in and order the vegan pizza just because it is lighter than regular pizza.

An online nutrition course for daycares and restaurants was developed for the program by a research group at UTEP led by Maria Duarte-Gardea.  a professor of nutrition and chairperson in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the university.

The course is free and can be used towards daycare workers’ continuing education credits or as a reference for any one who wants to know more about nutrition.

Elements of the course are being incorporated into the food handlers course at the DPH required for all restaurnat workers.

Here are the restaurants listed as participating in the Healthy Children’s Menu Initiative:

The Green Ingredient, 201 E. Main St. 79901
Chubb’s BBQ, 5810 Dyer 79904
Casa Pizza, 1311 Magruder 79925
T Coasters, 9530 Viscount, Suite 1AA
The Healthy Pizza Company, 3800 N. Mesa, Ste C-9 79912
Forti’s Mexican Elder, 321 Chelsea 79905
Los Aguachiles, 7500 N. Mesa, #107 79912
Sam’s Chinese Restaurant, 1501 E. Yandell 79902
La Tierra Café, 1731 Montana Ave 79902
Garufa Argentinean Restaurant, 5411 N. Mesa 79912
Mi Pueblo Nuevo Restaurant, 5630 Gateway E. 79905
Gonzolo’s G&R Restaurant, 401 E. Nevada 79902
The Pizza Joint, 2900 N. Mesa 79902
Good Coffee, 810 Piedras 79903
Café La Malinche, 1321 N. Zaragoza 79936
El Jacalito Mexican Restaurant, 2130 Myrtle 79901
Zino’s Greek & Mediterranean Cuisine. 7040 N Mesa, Ste H 79912

More information on the program can be found at the following link:  https://www.elpasotexas.gov/public-health/special-projects/eat-well-el-paso/eat-well-restaurant-initiative

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