I have some good news: This year, the Taste of Buffalo is going to be even better than it's been in the past. And by "better," I mean "healthier."
The Taste, partnering with the Independent Health Foundation, has changed its rules to mandate that all participating restaurants must offer at least one "healthy choice" food item.
Officials are saying that the 2007 Taste of Buffalo, to be held July 7 and 8 on Delaware Avenue downtown, will be the first major food festival in the country to make this rule.
The Taste is, of course, already wildly successful, attracting hundreds of thousands of people each summer for the two-day event. If we believe the old adage, "If it ain't broke don't fix it," you can't help but wonder, why change anything about the Taste of Buffalo? The truth is, they're not really "fixing" anything -- they're enhancing it.
There will still be restaurant booths featuring favorite specialities from all over Western New York. But along with their beloved standards, restaurants will submit to a Guidelines Committee the recipes for one dish.
The group will use a computer program that determines nutritional value, and decide if the dish meets its requirements to be deemed "healthy," says Independent Health Foundation's Jen Mitri, who heads up the Guidelines Committee.
Among the criteria: The dish must provide 30 percent or fewer of its calories from fat, and 10 percent or fewer calories from saturated fat. It must also meet sodium and cholesterol specifications.
Independent Health Foundation will work with the restaurants to help meet the guidelines, so there is an educational aspect here, as well.
Gretchen Fierle of Independent Health regards the new initiative as a "legacy to the community."
Our diet of chicken wings and fried bologna sandwiches seems to have done us in.
"Three-quarters of Western New York is overweight or obese" and this can cause many diseases, Fierle says.
Even more serious to Fierle is the heritage we are leaving to our children. Statistics now indicate that today's children may not live longer than their parents.
Veteran restaurant participants in the Taste of Buffalo were told of the requirements for healthy dishes in a letter sent out last month, Mitri says.
It's not cheap to enter the Taste of Buffalo. Each restaurant pays $700 to cover the cost of its tent, its power, security, permits and cleanup. In addition, of course, it must pay for food supplies and staff. Still, between 40 and 50 restaurants enter each year.
Obviously, most restaurants feel that the exposure is worth the cost. The event awards prizes for popularity. This year, they'll also award three prizes for healthiness.
Why did I call all of this good news? For one thing, it will raise awareness about our diet problems. For another -- awareness is not enough, action is. And Taste of Buffalo customers will have an option right in front of them to show them how to eat well in a healthy way. The fact that there is a choice of dishes makes the option more appealing, I think.
Certainly, the climate is ripe for the Taste of Buffalo's action. USDA healthy food regulations have pointed the way to healthy eating. Just recently, New York City banned trans fats in its restaurants.
Now Western New York is going on target as well.
All interested restaurants, by the way, must submit their application to the Taste of Buffalo by March 1. Starting next week, the application may be downloaded from www.TasteofBuffalo.com. Or call Mary Jo Wiepert, the restaurant committee co-chairman, at 832-2790.