Those trying to find healthy food options at restaurants now have a new resource that could make the search a little easier.

The Kern County Public Health Services Department announced Thursday its new Certified Healthy program, through which participating restaurants that meet a stringent set of criteria will receive a special logo for their grading card and menu, indicating which items are considered healthy.

“Finding healthy food options when eating out is not always easy,” said Brynn Carrigan, assistant director of the department. “I don’t think I’m alone when I’ve ordered a salad thinking I was picking the healthy option only to find out that I was eating more calories than if I ordered a greasy hamburger and an order of french fries. Certified Healthy provides Kern County residents the information they need to make healthy choices while dining out.”

Four local restaurants have already signed up for the program: Locale Farm to Table, Coconut Joe’s, Rio Acai and the new downtown eatery Better Bowls. All were vetted by the department using a stringent set of criteria to make sure they’re offering healthy foods.

In Coconut Joe’s case, owner Joe Coughlin created a lite menu, as the regular menu did not meet the standards set by the department. Some of the items on the menu include salmon salad, a garden burger and mesquite chicken as well as fish and chips.

“We believe life is about lifestyle and life energy. Life energy comes from the things you eat and how you feel about yourself,” Coughlin said. “Coconut Joe’s is extremely pleased to be one of the first restaurants to meet the stringent requirements necessary to participate in this much-needed program here in Kern County.”

Coughlin said that while all restaurants are inspected to make sure food is fit for eating, this program takes it one step further.

“Kern County restaurants have, for years, required health certification in an operational sense,” Coughlin said. “This groundbreaking program takes public service a step further. It tells customers that the restaurant is certified healthy is a nutritional sense as well.”

Blake and Jina McMillan are the owners of Better Bowls, a new restaurant on G Street that serves customizable bowls filled with various vegetables and sauces.

Blake McMillan said he used to be overweight and had health complications due to that which caused pain and discomfort. Several years ago, he decided to work toward being healthier and he started doing research on what healthy foods were available at restaurants.

“Back then, I didn’t have any resources. I really had to dig for the information,” he said. “I think Certified Healthy is a great program, a great tool. I encourage anyone out there to do research for yourself. Your health is your responsibility, ultimately.”

Jina McMillan said she hopes other businesses will choose to participate in the program.

“We’re so excited to be part of this program,” she said. “We really think it will benefit Bakersfield. We’re so excited to see where it leads.”

To make participating restaurants easy to find, the Public Health department has changed the real-time interactive map on its website allowing residents to filter it specifically to display restaurants under the program.

The department has also launched a Safe Diner app that lets people check it on the go.

The Public Health department said one of its goals with the program is to help reduce heart disease, diabetes and general obesity in the county. According to the department, heart disease is the second-leading cause of death in Kern County, killing nearly 1,000 residents a year.

The county is also ranked the worst in the state for diabetes deaths. Nearly 250 people die due to diabetes every year. Nearly 43 percent of adults in the county are considered obese.

“We are embarking on a new effort to combat some diseases that plague our community at a far greater rate than traditional food-borne illnesses do,” said department Director Matt Constantine.

Epidemiologist Kim Hernandez said it’s not too late to change your lifestyle, even if you’re dealing with some of those health issues already.

“We have the opportunity today, right now, to make decisions to lower our risk of chronic disease and live healthier, happier lives,” she said.

Carrigan said letters were sent to food businesses across the county late last month, inviting them to participate in Certified Healthy. While no other responses had come in as of Thursday morning besides the four that are already participating, she said she expects that to change.

“We encourage all restaurants to participate in this program and are offering complete access to our public health nutritionist for any restaurant that would like assistance in qualifying for this program,” she said. “We look forward to together making Kern County a healthy place to live and eat.”

Restaurants interested in participating can call the Public Health department at 321-3000.

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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