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¡Por Vida!: Creating Healthy Menu Options in San Antonio

porVida¡Por Vida! is a voluntary program that recognizes restaurants serving healthy options. Rather than labeling everything, participating establishments need only label the menu items that meet the ¡Por Vida! nutritional standards. ¡Por Vida! was developed and actualized by the Healthy Restaurants Coalition, a collaboration between the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health), the San Antonio Restaurant Association (SARA), and the San Antonio Dietetic Association (SADA). HKHC Project Director Kathy Shields and Project Coordinator David Clear say they are very pleased by the growth of the program and its popularity.

Partners Across Sectors
Before ¡Por Vida! was officially launched in the fall of 2010, the Healthy Restaurants Coalition worked together since January 2009. In those 22 months, the Coalition created the ¡Por Vida! program concept; developed the nutrition standards and the process for working with restaurants on nutrition analysis and menu labeling; developed the logo, branding, and marketing strategy; and rolled out the program in seven restaurants. All Coalition members participated in formulating the idea and operations of the program. Shields says that there was not any resistance to the idea of ¡Por vida! because all the key players were decision makers from the beginning.

The Coalition recognized that in order to make ¡Por Vida! a success, the customers and restaurant employees needed to learn more about it. To raise public awareness, the Healthy Restaurants Coalition held a press conference, which featured San Antonio’s Mayor, a County Judge, a State Senator, restaurant officials, and dietetic and public health professionals. Participating restaurants provided samples during the conference and ¡Por Vida! received excellent press coverage. In addition, spots ran on the local nightly news, in the newspaper and on the radio. The Coalition even worked with the San Antonio minor league baseball team to do a promotional event at a game. There was plenty of establishment-specific marketing as well. Once restaurants sign up for the program, they plan and pay for their own marketing materials – and so far the Coalition has not paid for marketing materials for any of the individual restaurants. At any given restaurant, a customer might see ¡Por Vida! promotional materials ranging from table tents or posters in the entry way to stickers and menu inserts. The one consistent marketing tactic required of every participating establishment is the “window cling,” a decal placed on the front door for potential customers to know this is a restaurant associated with ¡Por Vida!.

But what do restaurant customers think? The formal evaluation is currently being completed by an independent consultant, so results are forthcoming. The evaluation will include interview and survey results, as well as restaurant sales data, which will show if there were any changes in how well ¡Por Vida! menu options sold. Program details and evaluation results will likely be published in late 2011 in order to share lessons learned and best practices. And while the results may not be all positive, the results will be helpful for other initiatives. Anecdotally, Shields says the program has been a complete success. Customers say they love the idea and want healthy options to be clearly labeled. The relationships forged between public health and the restaurant industry through this program have been positive, which hasn’t always been the case.

Lessons Learned
¡Por Vida! continues to expand, with recent adoption by a hospital and a worksite. Food distributors in the San Antonio area have commented to the Coalition that healthy menu options may not be as popular now but that they are the wave of the future. Participation in ¡Por Vida! is a proactive way to  improve the health of menu options. Even with all the positive feedback about the program, Kathy Shields and David Clear say that their process has highlighted some key lessons. First of all, it’s important to make sure that restaurants are promoting ¡Por Vida! items all year long and not just at a particular time or right when the restaurant joins the program. As mentioned above, restaurant staff training is vital to success. Ensuring that restaurant staff know how to communicate what ¡Por Vida! is and why it’s important is critical. The ¡Por Vida! program is weaker at the restaurants where the Healthy Restaurants Coalition has not been involved in the staff training. Finally, having enough lead time for planning and relationship building – perhaps not even tied to any grant funding – is integral to creating a cohesive and well-planned program like ¡Por Vida!. This last lesson learn may be why Kathy Shields and David Clear can’t remember getting any pushback about the program: the restaurant association participated every step of the way.

The next phase of ¡Por Vida! will see the Healthy Restaurant Coalition working more with San Antonio’s West Side “mom and pop” Mexican restaurants to develop healthy menu options. The success of the program thus far is sure to be an asset as the program expands even further.

April, 2012