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Fair Food Challenge: Balancing Healthy with Traditional Foods


By Timothy Herrick

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What seems inevitable though is that fairs are going to have to find some way of keeping their "vacation from nutrition" foods while also satisfying the mounting demand for alternative options. "Fairs seeks to attract the whole community,"  said Chambers. "Food quality and food safety have grown to be huge conversations, and fairs have responded. Now healthier eating and warnings about high fat and high sugar diets are part of the conversation. Fairs have to deal with government officials and sponsors, so they must be talking about healthier food alternatives too. Everybody is aware of the topic." 

Healthier fair food - or increasing healthier options - Chambers sees still stuck in the discussion phase and not yet translate into a widespread trend. However, the local-vore and the" farm to fork movements, may not be explicitly about healthier food options, "but the result is also about healthier eating."

Expanding the fair food image will benefit the entire fair industry. Chambers points out the potential image problem for fairs - most local news outlets when they do their annual fair story, it usually includes the crazy fried foods. "It's really a tiresome story, because it makes fairs look like these zany unhealthy foods are the only thing the fair is about. If healthier foods can change that, so the media can do a different story, that's a good thing." 

Healthy Mandates
Two California Bay Area Fairs - Sand Mateo County Fair and Marin County Fair - have done just that - changing the fair food story to one that not just includes, but promotes healthier diets. 

The San Mateo County Fair has mandated that healthy foods must be offered by all of its vendors. "It's not a trend here, it's a lifestyle," said Matt Cranford, CFE, Fair Manager. "We still have all the traditional and fun fair foods, but we also want to cater those local tastes for a healthier alternative." 

The San Mateo County Fair implemented a system to promote the healthy food options. With banners, signage and other marketing materials, the fair trumpets the "Health Food Fair" where vendors must submit food items to appropriate government authorities to be declared healthy.

From the fair's website: " Several of our Food Concessionaires are participating in the Healthy Food Fare at the San Mateo County Fair, a collaborative effort with the San Mateo County Public Health Nutrition. Selected items from their menu are evaluated by the San Mateo County Health Department and will be featured in the food court. This will include menu items that represent a major whole food group (grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, or protein), are low-fat or non-fat dairy items, are appropriate portion sizes, are prepared using low-fat cooking methods (grilling and baking), or are using locally grown produce."

In addition, any concessionaire selling an "entree or dinner" plate must serve at least one item that also passes the local nutrition agency evaluation. 
This was not just good publicity, but also an effective business strategy. "It does not a big stretch to crate a healthy item," said Cranford. "We have a large population of vegetarians, and the come to the fair once a year and if we didn't offer them food choices, we would lose them."

Cranford admits that the Bay Area has long been renowned for alternative lifestyles that often emphasized very healthy eating habits, and other parts of the country may not feel as compelled to go to take such extreme approach. On the other hand, working with the local agencies who handle food and nutrition "has been a great partnership, and having a third party decide what is healthy gives the fair more validity. The Healthy Fair Banners are great publicity. The public awareness has been great." 

The Marin County Fair healthy eating policy is a decade old this year. In 2005 the fair "started working with vendors encouraging them to add healthy foods to existing menus," said Gabriella C. Calicchio, Director, Department of Cultural and Visitor Services, County of Marin. "That first year there were five vendors with healthy foods on their menus. In 2006 there were 13 vendors who included healthy foods and 15 in 2007. In 2009 the Marin County Fair made it a contract requirement that all food vendors include and market healthy choices on their menus."

According to Calicchio, the main factors motivating this change was the acknowledgement that "unhealthy foods is a major contributing factor to the rise in obesity. If all we offer is deep fried or sugary foods - that's the choice they will make. But adding healthy options allows fairgoers to make choices that reflect their values and behaviors."

What is unusual about the Marin County Fair policy is that instead of bringing in a vendor that cater to vegans and diet enthusiasts, it mandated all vendors must accommodate a healthy date. "Vendors specializing in healthy foods have made the Marin County Fair their homes with great success," Calicchio explained. "And. we've found families and fairgoers are happier being able to find healthy foods at any vendor they approach."

In fact, changing the image was main intent of the policy. According to Calicchio, the policy is "shifting the perception of Fair food from junk food to tasty healthy treats," said Calicchio

The feedback continues to be positive, and also accomplishes a main objective of the fair - encouraging fairgoers to linger. "We learned from families that they felt more comfortable staying at the fair longer, and returning multiple days when they and their children were able to enjoy healthy snacks," said Calicchio. 
There are signs that governmental agencies seem very encouraging of changing the fried food only image of most fairs. After years of positive feedback with its program, the Marin County received a 2-year, USDA grant to support the healthy fair food program. 

"The first year - Marin Co. Fair was the only fair to receive funding, in 2014 an additional four fairs received funding to provide messages about healthy eating to low income families," Calicchio said. "In Marin County - funds were used to work closely with food vendors, even hosting a "healthy food showcase" where vendors' healthy foods were entered into a contest, tasted by celebrity judges, and received recognition and cash prizes. Other fair efforts provided a map to fairgoers so they could easily locate the healthy food items being served. There were teams of bilingual health ambassadors roving the fairgrounds interacting with fairgoers with healthy messages. Marin Agriculture Institute, Marin Organic and LIFT (all local community based organizations) had booths at the fair, encouraging healthy local eating."

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