|Joe Kerby, Brittaney Kerby, Melissa Cammack, Erin Rigney, and Marcus Cooper|
at the Hutto McDonald's owned by the Kerbys
When I first heard that Williamson County was ranked the healthiest county in the Texas I was a bit surprised. We have wonderful people here, of course, but health-wise they strike me as somewhere in the average range, which is of course where most of us rank in pretty much everything. It turns out that the health department did not actually go around and check everybody’s blood pressure or put people on treadmills. The evaluations of county health are made by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, with the cooperation of state and local health departments. Instead of doing check-ups on people, they look at statistics such as premature death rates, how many people smoke or are obese, teen pregnancy, unemployment rates, and even air pollution. They also counted doctors and dentists in the area, and how many people had health insurance.
To come out on top of all the counties in Texas, Williamson County obviously did very well on most measures, but I was curious if there was any category in which we flubbed up, so I called Dr. Chip Riggins, the executive director of the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD). He confessed that in the category labeled “Percent of All Restaurants that are Fast Food Establishments” we scored 56%, which is worse than the Texas average of 52% and considerably worse than the national benchmark of 27%. As a county, we really enjoy hamburgers and French fries.
If a woman goes to a certain drive-through establishment in Georgetown for lunch and orders a bacon cheeseburger with mayonnaise, a medium order of onion rings, and a small chocolate shake, that one meal would satisfy her entire daily calorie and sodium requirements, with twice as much fat as recommended. If she makes a habit of that meal, and also continues to eat breakfast and supper, over time she will gain weight, and quite likely develop heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. This is such a familiar progression that we have come to regard it as normal aging, which it is not.
Americans consume one-third of our daily calories outside of the home. If we are going to eat out that much, we need to order healthy menu items.
This is where the health department steps in with a little assistance. ¡Por Vida! (which means “For Life”) is a new WCCHD program helping participating restaurants identify menu items that meet strict criteria for calorie, fat, and sodium content. Items that pass the test are marked on the menu with a special ¡Por Vida! logo.
Melissa Cammack, Director of Healthy Communities, Erin Rigney, a registered dietician, and Marcus Cooper, Marketing Director, all from WCCHD met me recently at the McDonald’s across from Hutto High School. Joe and Brittaney Kerby, the owners of this and several other McDonald’s restaurants in the area, have volunteered for the ¡Por Vida! program and are rolling out the new menu stickers and promotional pamphlets this week.
Joe and Brittaney are in their 30s and are regular exercisers. Brittaney recently completed a five kilometer race, running the whole distance, and is now training to get her time below 30 minutes. When she brings her two sons to the McDonald’s she makes them eat oatmeal and lets them split an order of fries for a treat. Joe eats at the restaurant every day. The Southwest Salad is his favorite, fresh lettuce topped with fire-roasted corn, black beans, tomatoes and tortilla strips, but when Brittaney is not watching he will sometimes enjoy a triple cheeseburger. Brittaney has studied nutrition and is really enthusiastic about the ¡Por Vida! program. She says that a lot of people just don’t know that McDonald’s carries healthy menu items, but she admits that hamburgers still sell better than salads. I ask her if the cashiers are going to counsel people not to buy large shakes to go with their salads and she looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind. “It’s about having a choice,” she explains diplomatically.
Everybody else has already eaten, but I have come hungry to taste-test the healthy choices. Joe brings me a small hamburger, a small fruit smoothie, and a Southwest Salad. Marcus takes the hamburger off my hands, and the rest of them stare at me while I eat. There is a package of Paul Newman salad dressing, but Erin tells me that the dressing isn’t counted for the ¡Por Vida! sticker so I play by the rules and squeeze some lime juice on my salad. Even without dressing the salad tastes really good and fills me up, and the price is just $3.99. I wash it down with the Wild Berry Smoothie.
To qualify for a ¡Por Vida! sticker, a meal must meet the following criteria:
<23 grams total fat
<8 grams saturated fat
<0.5 grams trans fat
<750 milligrams sodium
The one weakness of the ¡Por Vida! criteria is that the content of sugar is not specified. That’s how the Wild Berry Smoothie can qualify. On the other hand, most people should be able to figure out that the Wild Berry Smoothie has more sugar than the salad. The ¡Por Vida! literature that Erin brought for me recommends water as the preferred beverage.
Other area establishments that are participating in ¡Por Vida! are Carino’s Italian Restaurant, Catfish Parlour, The Egg and I, and the Wesleyan at Estrella. The folks at WCCHD intend to recruit more eating establishments into the program soon. They want to hang onto that Healthiest County designation.