WASHINGTON – What do you get when a chef, a lawyer, a nonprofit employee and a dietician walk into a restaurant? It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s actually one local organization’s formula for encouraging access to healthy food options at D.C. area restaurants.
The United States Healthful Food Council — a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting obesity through increased access to healthier foods — is launching the first-ever certification program for restaurants. The goal is to make selecting healthy choices easier for conscious customers.
“We are increasingly putting ourselves in a situation where food is being prepared by other people for a profit,” says USHFC President Lawrence Williams, who explains that healthy options are not always considered in the economics of the competitive restaurant industry.
Williams and his team designed the REAL (Responsible, Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership) certification program this past year. The credentials ensure certified restaurants purchase, prepare and serve items that are nutritionally sustainable.
The certification is a point-based system that sets standards on vegetables and fruits, moderate portion sizes, local and regional sourcing, healthy children’s meals, reduced processing and additives, lean meats, special dietary offerings, organic and sustainable food, use of healthier oils and animal welfare.
The program is in its pilot phase and so far 17 area restaurants have completed the certification, including Busboys and Poets, Founding Farmers, Restaurant Nora and The Pig.
“I am responsible for feeding people for a living, and I want to make sure I feed them well and that the food I give them is good for them and is not going to harm them,” says Ris Lacoste, chef and owner of RIS, one of the participating restaurants. “It’s one step at a time. It’s one ingredient at a time and making it better.”
Restaurants interested in obtaining the certification meet with Williams’ team, a lawyer and a registered dietitian to establish a certain threshold for the food offered.
“Conversations between registered dietitians and chefs don’t happen very often, but it’s been a really positive experience,” says Williams, who worked with health experts through panels, surveys and roundtables to develop the certification process.
Williams says as an incentive for restaurants to obtain the certification, he will bring them more business.
“We will find the people who really care about what they eat, and there is a growing population that really does care,” he says.
“The vision for the REAL certification is something we felt we were already doing, and we felt we could benefit from the recognition,” says Josh Hahn, operating partner with EatWell DC, who has five restaurants participating in the program. “But ultimately our guests and the dining public at large will be able to benefit from it.”
The REAL certification program incorporates best practices from a variety of government and nonprofit recommendations and is based on the LEED model.
Williams says that similar to the first green building standards, which were originally started by one organization and are now embraced by the development industry, there is no set standard in the restaurant industry.
“When a third party has credibility, there’s so much credibility in getting that endorsement,” says Dan Simons, managing partner with Founding Farmers. “Because we saw that with the U.S. Green Building Council — and that certifies us with the facility and the construction and the design — I wanted to find something of the same caliber and credibility with regard to how we manage and deal with food.”
Customers will eventually be able search for establishments that are REAL certified through popular restaurant reservation and review websites.
For now, the program is available only in the D.C. area, but will eventually expand nationwide. Williams also hopes to offer training programs for chefs and servers, as well as community trainers who travel and train industry professionals in various markets.
“REAL should be able to help people enjoy their food without them having to examine it with a microscope,” Williams says.
The following D.C. restaurants are REAL certified: