At concession stands, Johnson County nudges patrons toward healthier options

06/11/2013 5:46 PM

06/11/2013 5:47 PM

Johnson County is saying au revoir to French fries and king-sized candy bars.

The park and recreation department has been gradually rolling out a healthier menu at its concession stands this year. The effort is part of its “Score!” campaign, which strives to offer nutritious food options to patrons.

The new menu debuted at the county’s two indoor facilities — Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee and New Century Fieldhouse in Gardner — in January.

On Friday, the switch was implemented at Theatre in the Park.

But the change is risky and similar efforts have failed elsewhere. For example, the city of Overland Park pulled its healthy menu at its soccer complex because of a lack of demand.

“We’re being a trend-setter and I’m very proud,” said Johnson County superintendent of recreation Jill Geller. “I’ve heard a lot of counties have tried to do this and failed. I haven’t yet heard of a county that has tried and succeeded so far.”

To celebrate the change at Theatre in the Park, the first 1,500 people who walked through the gates on opening night of “Children of Eden” received a free apple.

The healthier food items fit in nicely with Theatre in the Park’s mission statement, which aims to improve the quality of life in the community, said Tim Bair, the producing artistic director.

“We can’t say we want to ‘improve the quality of life in the community,’ but then sell 10 gallons of cheese to people,” said Bair. “It’s about thinking in a different way and making healthier choices. And what’s nice about this new menu is that making those choices is so much easier when it’s right in front of your face.”

Changes to the menu include new items, such as a jalapeno chicken wrap and turkey sandwich. Fries have been replaced with sides like baked chips, apples and granola bars. King-sized candy bars have been replaced by their fun-sized counterparts. And hamburgers are now sold on multi-grain buns. Each item also features calorie counts as well.

The new menu is a collaborative effort that began when the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment was awarded a grant from the Kansas Health Foundation to work on bringing healthier food to the community. Together, with the park and recreation department and the Access to Healthy Foods Coalition, they created the “Score!” campaign.

“We’re hoping for a domino effect that will just keep going,” said Barbara Mitchell, the spokeswoman for the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment. “If kids are used to eating healthy at the concession stand, maybe they’ll continue to do so at home. Or, ask their parents for healthier food at the grocery store.”

Introducing the new menu this year was a little nerve-wracking for the county, however. Two years ago, the county introduced healthier choices on its concession stand menus but patrons didn’t make the switch. With this new menu, the unhealthiest items have been scrapped, offering patrons no choice but to be healthier in their decision making.

“Honestly, we were a bit scared because we rely so heavily on our concession sales,” Geller said. “But we’ve already received some very positive feedback and some of our weekends have even exceeded sales from previous years.”

This summer, the new menu will be implemented at the aquatic center in Roeland Park. In the fall, the county plans to implement it at Heritage Park and the Football Complex.

Eventually, Geller hopes all concession stands run by the county will feature the new menu.

She points out, however, implementing the new menu at the outdoor venues is going to be trickier than anywhere else.

“People expect beer and brats at a softball game,” she said. “The new menu might be a tough sell.”

Her sentiment was echoed by Mike Laplante, the manager of the Overland Park Soccer Complex, which is run by the city of Overland Park.

The soccer complex introduced healthier menu items back in 2009, but after a few months scrapped the idea because of poor sales. Traditional snacks such as hot dogs, chips, candy and sodas were selling like hotcakes, while the healthier food was being ignored. It was the same dilemma the county faced in 2011.

“When they go to a ballpark, people want a pretzel or funnel cake — fun snacks they don’t eat all the time,” Laplante said. “People aren’t looking for a whole meal.”

Even though the soccer complex has no immediate plans to change its menu again, Laplante is interested to see how the county fares in its new venture this year.

He’s also keeping his eye on other soccer complexes in the country, to see if healthy trends are succeeding there as well.

The county’s risky move is already paying off as more residents and employees are embracing the change.

“Our parks and recreation department is very forward-thinking and hip,” Bair said. “The Score campaign is one of the best examples. I’m terribly impressed.”

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