PHILADELPHIA -- In a show of brotherly love, several of the city's supermarkets are helping Philadelphians become healthier and lose weight by eating more fruits and vegetables.
The partnering of city government and retailers -- Pathmark and ShopRite among them -- began shortly after Mayor John Street learned some grim news about his constituents. About two years ago, the home of the cheesesteak and hoagie was designated America's fattest city by Men's Fitness magazine.
Street appointed public health educator and certified health-education specialist Gwen Foster, M.P.H., to the newly created post of Health and Fitness Czar. He also created the Fun, Fit and Free Health Initiative Plan to help motivate and educate residents on the benefits of health and fitness.
Foster, noting Street's proactivity about health, said the mayor had planned on starting the initiative even before Men's Fitness published its dire assessment.
What should conscientious Philadelphians be focusing on? Produce is at the top of the list, neck and neck with increased activity and exercise, said Foster. The simple, yet elusive, goal is to make Philadelphia a model by becoming one of the healthiest cities in the nation.
"We've discovered that most people give lip service to fitness," Foster told SN. "This is why it's important that we participate with supermarkets. We need to provide people with the skills to prepare produce so it's appealing to their taste buds."
At Fresh Fields/Whole Food Markets' Callowhill unit, cooking demonstrations held in the store have been emphasizing healthy eating, and include a focus on produce, according to Shari Stern, marketing specialist and community liaison.
"It's a matter of learning how to prepare produce properly," she said. "People taste it and they like it."
So much so, says Stern, that even after the cooking sessions are over, she continues to see some participants -- who've now become dedicated customers.
"There's a woman who lost 50 pounds, and she's in here all the time," Stern said. "People who've turned towards a healthier lifestyle come to our store because we have such a wide variety and alternatives to high-fat meals. These people got to know each other from the workshops and they shop and socialize here. It's a gathering and meeting place."
Stern credits some of the city's changed eating habits to various health educators, such as Johnetta Frazier, M.S., who present the store's workshops.
Several times a year, Frazier conducts grocery tours, which include instruction on how to read food labels for nutritional content and learning the advantages of shopping the store's perimeter where the fruits and vegetables are located. Her hands-on cooking demos, which emphasize fruits, vegetables and grains, usually draw between 15 and 25 people.
"I never realized how many people were unaware you didn't have to cook vegetables for a long time," she said, adding that many of the participants are "retraining their taste buds away from mushy broccoli" to appreciate a fresh salad that Frazier makes with chopped kale, red pepper, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.
"People love it every time I've made it," she said, adding that the program's busy attendees quickly see the benefit of fresh packaged greens "even if they have to pay the extra money." Health and Fitness Czar Foster concurred.
"Most people are beyond amazed that what we prepare contains no animal protein," she said.
Like Stern, Frazier has noticed that, right after one of her demos, participants grab a cart and begin shopping once they realize that several purchases will allow them to replicate at home what they've just experienced in the store.
"For a lot of people, shopping is more of a burden, rather than an educational or pleasurable experience," she said, suggesting that retailers need "to educate, hold workshops, do whatever they have to do to tell people" about the food resources available to consumers.
The dozen or so independently owned ShopRite supermarkets that are also participating in Mayor Street's initiative are about to launch and educational pilot program. Called the "Health Trip," the effort involves about 7,000 students, 1,000 parents, 50 M.S.-level educators and 200 teachers throughout 13 Philadelphia elementary and high schools.
These ShopRites will provide -- to students who achieve certain goals and awareness about their eating habits during the program -- shopping incentive gifts, according to Orien Reid, a spokeswoman for the chain. The ShopRite gift certificates will have a value ranging from $5 for students to $20 for parents.
The Health Trip's overall travel concept allows students to visit fictitious sites such as Las Veggies, Nev., while learning how fruits and vegetables grow and what nutritional value they contain. And the kids, along with their parents, will learn how to prepare foods at designated high school cafeterias, for which ShopRite is donating the food.
Reid noted that these stores' bulletin boards are filled with information about the program, which she envisions spreading to more schools in the future.
"The program aims, in addition to encouraging more exercise, to change eating habits and nutritional education in a compelling way," Reid said. However, what's key for Reid is how the program ultimately has an impact on ShopRite store owners.