Baltimore carryouts helping to promote healthier food choices

Carryout restaurants are a staple in many Baltimore neighborhoods and a primary source of food for families in those areas. But they aren't known for providing the healthiest food.
Recently released research out of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that carryouts can provide healthier options, without digging into profits.
In a city of carryouts, including two others on his block of Greenmount Avenue alone, James Jennings of Baltimore Legends Carryout is working to stand out.
He unveils the special of the day.
"There you have it, grilled chicken breast, fresh potato salad, on whole wheat bread," he said.
It's not at all your typical carryout fare. Jennings is a part of a greater movement, working with the Bloomberg School of Public Health on the B'More Healthy Communities for Kids initiative.
Hopkins researchers recruited Jennings and other carryout owners to help them improve their menu boards, highlight healthier options and come up with healthy combo meals to promote to customers.
"I try to offer an alternative to what everybody else is selling," he said. "We still serve the same things that they serve, but we give them an option to do something different." 
The intervention is based on Baltimore Healthy Carryouts, a study done by Hopkins professor Joel Gittelsohn.
"Seventy-five percent of all prepared food sources in east and west Baltimore, which tend to be low-income areas of the city are carry-out restaurants," he said. "If you really want to influence people's diets from prepared food sources, you have to be thinking about carry-out restaurants."
The study found that the carryouts that worked with Hopkins to offer and promote healthy menu items saw on average a 25 percent increase in revenue.
"I believe that we've been able to show that his was a financially viable option to provide healthier foods to their clientele and to spike demand through appropriate promotion and signage and menu changing," Gittelsohn said.
The results were so promising, the city implemented a similar strategy in its six public markets, including the famed Lexington Market.
"What we did was look at each vendor, look at what they are offering and how can we make slight tweaks," said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore city's food policy director. "How can we make it healthier where they can still feel that they're getting the revenues they need, and the customers are still getting what they would really like to be able to buy." 
Developing and showcasing healthy kids' menus is also a key part of the plan. Baltimore dad Derrick Jessup definitely took notice, choosing Royal Deli for lunch with his two sons at the market.
"That's one of the reasons why when we come down here," he said. "We go to a place that sells salads and stuff versus the fried chicken and the rest of the fried food, so we really try to stay healthy."
Collectively, through the city's carryouts, corner stores, public markets and recreation centers, B'More Healthy Communities for Kids and the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative is hoping to spread a culture of healthy eating in the city's neediest areas.
"Really changing the food environment is very important, that means changing, creating healthy carryouts, it's healthy corner stores, making healthy affordable food the easy choice," Freishtat said.
They can't do it without small business owners in these neighborhoods, leading the charge on the front lines. 
"In the inner city and the urban areas, if things aren't available to you, then they don't know anything about it," Jennings said. "I'm trying to be that boat that gets them from one side to the other and it's working."
Jennings has owned Baltimore Legends for almost two years now. He said he definitely noticed increases in interest and sales of his healthy menu items, since he started working with Johns Hopkins.
In addition to store interventions, B'More Healthy Communities for Kids will also have an education component for kids and caregivers on choosing and preparing healthier foods.
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