By ANGIE CARNATHAN
The Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association is teaming up local restauranteurs with local farmers to provide healthier options at Starkville restaurants. The movement is called Eat Healthy Mississippi. Jay and Amy Yates, owners of The Veranda, said they are excited about the possibilities.
“The MHRA started a clearing house for participating restaurants to join with local farmers to use their product and market it in a healthy way,” Jay Yates said. “Obviously, we have some issues in Mississippi with eating healthy, and this is the MHRA’s and the local restaurants’ way of getting involved and trying to push things in a healthier direction.”
Jay Yates said using local produce the way the restaurant business is going at large now.
“Not only restaurant owners but consumers want to know where their food comes from,” Jay Yates said. “For chefs, it’s fun to come up with new ways to showcase our local produce. For example, I was making some bread the other day, and instead of sugar I used some local honey. We’re still going to have steak, mashed potatoes, some items that use heavy cream –– but we’re also going to have healthy options so that everyone has a choice.”
Jay Yates said his own desire to eat healthier has helped him look for healthier options for his restaurant.
Yates’ wife Amy said the program is going to be great for local farmers, too.
“This is more than just putting calorie counts on our menus,” Amy Yates said. “This is about using products that are grown right here in our area so that we can provide the freshest options to our patrons.”
Jay Yates said he hopes the message gets through to local consumers and they take advantage of the new choices so the options will continue to be available in the future.
Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association Director of Education Grady Griffin said Eat Healthy Mississippi is a USDA grant program that provides an opportunity for local restaurants to respond to guest requests for healthier options. Griffin said one way to help accomplish this goal is to forge a working relationship between restaurants and local farmers.
“Eating healthy means eating fresh, and restaurants using local produce are providing healthier options,” Griffin said.
Griffin said there are currently two ways in which that can happen.
“In Starkville, restaurants can go to http://www.msucares.com  and click on the logo for Mississippi Market Maker,” Griffin said. “What that site does is allow growers to list their farm, what they produce and how to get in touch with them at no charge. So for instance, a restauranteur can go to Market Maker and type in what they’re looking for in the way of local product, and using a search option can find not only whether or not that product is available locally but how far away it is and who to call to get it.”
Griffin said another option for restaurants is a secondary database of growers that have agreed to participate which has been compiled by Eat Healthy Mississippi, so that restaurants can contact them directly for information.
Griffin said restaurants would have to spend about $600 per recipe for the restaurant to have their recipes analyzed for nutrition information on their own.
“This is why we put this initiative together,” Griffin said. “We’re using USDA grant funds to underwrite up to four recipes per participating restaurant.”
According to the Eat Healthy Mississippi website, the recipe guidelines state that in order for menu items to qualify they must meet the following criteria: Entrees must contain 750 calories or less, 25 grams of fat or less and 8 grams of saturated fat or less. Appetizers, side dishes and desserts are also eligible if they have 250 calories or less, 8 grams of fat or less and 3 grams of saturated fat or less. Deep fried items are excluded, except for very small amounts of garnishes, such as wonton strips.
Eligible crop items include fruits, tree nuts, vegetables, culinary herbs, spices, medicinal herbs, honey, hops, tea leaves and cut flowers.
Amy Yates said restaurants are going to need much more product on a much more regular basis with the program, which she hopes will benefit the Mississippi economy in addition to encouraging Mississippians to lead a healthier lifestyle.
“To me, it’s great because it’s a lot of problems within our state are being addressed by this one initiative,” Amy Yates said.
Ken Hood of the MSU Agriculture Economics Department said the Mississippi MarketMaker web site benefits restaurants, farmers and consumers alike.
“Consumers are interested in buying locally produced foods and the Eat Healthy Mississippi program encourages restaurants to use locally produced foods in their menu recipes,” Hood said. “The MHRA has teamed up with the Mississippi Market Maker website to help their restaurant members find the local producers they need to supply the homegrown foods the restaurants need for the Eat Healthy promotion. The Mississippi Market Maker website http://www.marketmaker.msstate.edu  is available to anyone, free of charge. Restaurants can find producers, producers can find restaurants and consumers can find both with just a few clicks of a computer mouse.”
According to a release from MSU, a vital part of the campaign is the Healthy Dining Finder at http://www.healthydiningfinder.com . This nationwide website lists healthy restaurant menu options and can be searched by location. Each restaurant lists the number of items offered in different categories: “healthy dining,” “sodium savvy” and “kids eat well.” The website includes healthy recipes that incorporate fresh local produce.
“The website tells consumers where they can find healthy choices in restaurants, plus they will be able to get recipes so they can try it at home,” Hood said.
MHRA Executive Director Mike Cashion said Eat Healthy Mississippi is creating new relationships between growers and restaurants.
“We’re developing a working roster of local growers that restaurants can easily access,” Cashion said.
Paige Manning, director of marketing and public relations for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said the campaign has the potential to increase business for growers.
“This initiative will potentially lead to consumers eating more Mississippi-grown fruits, vegetables and specialty crops, which will expand our specialty crop industry.”
Recent consumer trends indicate a growing demand to know where food is from and a preference for locally grown products, Manning said.
“This trend is no different for restaurant diners,” she said. “Eat Healthy Mississippi gives consumers the option to buy locally when dining out and creates more healthy dining options, which could lead to better health.”
Manning said restaurants could see an increase in revenue by meeting consumers’ demands for local produce.
“With increased access to locally-grown fruits and vegetables, restaurants will be able to fulfill consumer demand,” she said. “Restaurants offering healthy menu options that incorporate local produce could experience an increase in the number of diners and revenues.”
For additional comments or questions contact Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org  or visit http://www.msra.org .