Be Well: What's For Lunch At Northeast Ohio's Museums, Zoo?

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by Sarah Jane Tribble

Beneath the Rainforest dome at the Amazon Café, lettuce chills at the salad bar, pepperoni pizzas warm under heat lamps, and florescent ICEEs swirl in their frozen plastic capsules.

But these options aren't very tempting for Erin Dickenson and her family. 

"We brought all our own food," Dickenson says. "The options here aren't very healthy, I think and kind of expensive"

Plastic mats have been set in front of 4-year-old Ben and 16-month old Nicholas, keeping their animal crackers, sandwiches and drinks off the table. Dad, Mike VanBuren says they eat better if they pack.

"And the kids get a kick out of having a picnic lunch," Van Buren says. "We packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on wheat bread and some cheese snacks and yogurt and some dried fruit."  

When it comes to family outings at cultural institutions, the Middleburg Heights family's routine is not that unusual. Lots of parents as well as health care experts and even leaders at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and local museums say they would rather kids avoid the fried, fatty and sugary foods usually on the menu.

Chris Kuhar, director of the zoo, says he's seen an increase in visitors asking for healthier food, but it's still often easier to get his animals to eat healthy than the visitors. 

"It's really a one-health sort of message," Kuhar says. "We've got sort of a controlled experiment here with our animals because we control the food they get. So, I can tell you exactly what happens when you go on a leafy greens diet. You lose weight, your blood pressure improves, your blood glucose to insulin ratio improves. All these sort of things we see in our animals, I'd love it if folks responded that way at our food service locations as well." 

Elizabeth Merritt is founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums. The organization has more than 4,000 members nationwide and has noticed, Merritt says, that many are trying to offer healthier foods. 

"One of the things museums are very aware of is that they have a bigger responsibility to their communities and part of those responsibilities are to be aware of issues like obesity and attendant diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure," Merritt says. 

But, she adds, there is an inherent problem for the zoo and other cultural institutions that want their visitors to eat healthy.  Most museums contract out their food service and lose control over what foods are served, she says. 

Usually, the contract allows the food service company to take a percentage of the sales "which of course give them an enormous incentive both to choose menu items that are very popular and sell well and have as high as possible a profit margin," Merritt says.

That's even if the profit contradicts the museum's mission.

At the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in University Circle, one of the first things you notice when you walk into the revamped cafeteria is a bright red Coke machine.  But it may not be there when the museum completes its 5-year, $150 million expansion.

Popular local chef Zack Bruell took over the food service contract at the museum last year and immediately began to rework the menu. The museum's leaders had given instructions to offer more healthy options.

"I'm a cook, "Bruell says."I'm not a chemist or a dietician.  I don't know calories. I do know what we do is healthy.  But it's healthy in moderation."

The menu still includes creamy mac and cheese, but now there are also turkey sandwiches on whole wheat, and Bruell says nothing comes out of a can. It's a challenge, he says, to provide healthy food but also serve what visitors want.
"There is a process to this. You can't just hit people over the head with it in Cleveland, Ohio," Bruell says. "There's a different mentality here and we have to do it slowly. But I do believe that the food we're doing here is healthy because we're doing it from scratch."
The Cleveland Children's Museum is recreating its menu from scratch too.  The museum is closed now as it moves to a new location. And Executive Director Maria Campanelli says the new place will have an eating area stocked with both healthy and some of those less healthy options for families.  

"It's a choice and the child understands that there are foods that you can eat that are growing foods and there are foods that you can eat that you want to eat in moderation and making healthy choices are going to make your body healthy," Campanelli says.

Back at the zoo, an animal keeper has a bright blue basket full of kale, broccoli, zucchini, yams and other vegetables at her feet waiting to be chopped after she feeds the Howler monkeys.

Since the zoo replaced processed food pellets with more fresh vegetables and fruit, the gorillas have lost weight and reduced their blood pressure. Smaller primates like the Howler monkeys have improved coats and their skin doesn't itch like it once did. 

Zoo officials say the change in the primates' overall health is substantial. 


Ideas: "What's for lunch at Northeast Ohio's attracations?" ideastream's Sarah Jane Tribble presents a video story and takes the stage with Ideas Host Rick Jackson to talk about the story. 


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