Matt Constantine speaks to the audience at this year's Kern County Public Health Services Department summit held at the DoubleTree Hotel.

Kern County is a wonderful place to live and work. Summer mornings in Kern County are a great time to get outside and move. Walk, garden, ride a bike, talk to neighbors, jog - whatever it takes, just move. Summer evenings are also a terrific time to eat at many of our local, healthy restaurants. Our community is full of restaurants that are striving to provide healthier options, many using locally sourced fruits and vegetables from Kern County.

Unfortunately, in Kern County we suffer from some of the highest rates of chronic disease in the state. Kern County residents have the highest rates of death due to diabetes than any other of the 57 counties in California. One-third of Kern County children and more than 67 percent of Kern County adults are overweight or obese and obesity is one of the greatest risk factors for developing chronic diseases. With wide open spaces that provide plenty of opportunity for outdoor recreation and the rich variety of locally grown produce, we can change those numbers.

To help all of us make healthier choices, Kern County Public Health is proud to launch a new program called Certified Healthy. This new program will use a number of criteria (calories, saturated fat, and sodium to name a few) to identify foods that are healthy and can be used to lower your heart disease and obesity risks. Restaurants in Kern County that can achieve this bold standard will be recognized with a new prominent logo on the restaurant grading card that is displayed in the window. The restaurant will also be allowed to place the logo next to the qualifying items on the menu to assist diners in selecting healthier options. Participating restaurants will be highlighted on our website and a filter on the Safe Diner app has been added to assist in selecting healthier choices easily.

To launch this new initiative we have invited four local restaurants to spearhead our efforts and our nutritionist has been thoroughly reviewing all of the ingredients in their menu items. Each one of these restaurants, Coconut Joe’s, Better Bowls, Rio Acai and Locale, have met our strict criteria and have committed to offering healthy menu items.

Joe Coughlin, the longtime local business owner of Coconut Joe’s, has been a great partner with Public Health and was one of the key leaders in our community that helped to create the letter grading system we see in restaurant windows. To address increased interest in healthier meals, Joe has created a new lite menu that has meals that not only meet our Certified Healthy criteria, but also provide you with a healthier alternative without sacrificing the taste and selection you’ve come to expect from Coconut Joe’s.

Blake McMillan, along with his wife Jina, are the proud owners of a new restaurant in downtown Bakersfield called Better Bowls. Although Jina grew up eating healthy vegetarian meals at home, Blake struggled with weight and undiagnosed health issues in his early years. As Blake explains it, once he began dating Jina, she started cooking healthy items for him. Because of this, his weight went down and his health improved significantly. They’ve taken what they have learned about eating well and made great options available to all of us in their restaurant.

While these are different stories and approaches, they are small, powerful examples of the many positive changes that are taking place around us. With our new Certified Healthy program, we hope to recognize and benefit from healthier eating options and hope that all Kern County restaurants will join in.

Our community has relied on Public Health for decades to ensure the safety of the food in all of our more than 3,000 food facilities. We recognize the need to provide the public with tools to help make informed decisions about more than just food safety. We hope this new program will make it easy to quickly select healthy dining options for you and your family.

We are proud to stand with our local businesses in making Kern County a healthy place to live and eat.

Matt Constantine is the Director of Public Health for Kern County.