By LINDA THOMPSON
In a neighborhood where one out of four adults are obese, Harlem food temple Sylvia’s Restaurant has partnered up with a local diabetes center to encourage patrons to eat smaller, healthier portions.
From now on, customers will be asked if they want to save half their meal for later before they dive into their fried chicken, fried shrimp, pork chops and collard greens. Those who say yes will go home with the other half of their dinner in a free reusable, dishwasher-safe container – an upgrade on the doggy bag.
Sylvia’s is the first restaurant in Central Harlem to participate in the Save Half for Later campaign, which is sponsored by Mount Sinai’s Communities IMPACT Diabetes Center and the East Harlem Diabetes Center of Excellence. According to a 2006 community health profile of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 27 percent of adults in Central Harlem are obese – almost double the rate for the borough, at 15 percent.
Twelve East Harlem restaurants are currently participating in the campaign. They will soon be joined by Lolita’s, another Harlem hotspot a couple of blocks further down Lenox Avenue, says Carolyn Zezima, director of the IMPACT Diabetes Center.
The diabetes center approached Sylvia’s because of its status as a neighborhood icon.
“It is an institution, to say the least,” says Zezima. “If any restaurant represents the community, this is it.”
Tren’ness Woods-Black, the third-generation owner and the restaurant’s vice-president of communications did not have to think long when she was asked to participate. “This was a no-brainer. Anything that’s getting people to eat healthier, we want to be a part of,” she says.
Woods-Black stressed that Sylvia’s has been doing its bit to promote healthier eating for over 10 years: using less sodium, less salt, serving all-vegetable plates.
But big portions are part of the soul food ethic, Woods-Black adds.
“We’re not French,” she says. “People come expecting a big meal.”
The campaign realized early on that asking restaurants to reduce their portions wouldn’t have the same success. Also, getting people to eat healthier is something you do little by little, argues Gina Keatley, an IMPACT Diabetes Center board member. That is why the Save Half for Later campaign targets portion size and not the high salt, cholesterol and saturated fat-rates soul food dishes often carry.
“With this, people are ordering what they actually want,” Keatley said. “They’re just eating less of it.”
In the back of the restaurant, Tricia Burgess was having lunch with four colleagues. She works at the Apollo Jazz Theatre, just a couple of blocks away, and says she comes here two to three times a month.
Burgess doesn’t consider herself a health-conscious person. “No,” she laughed and looked to her fellow diners for affirmation. But she applauded the initiative nonetheless. “This is putting me in my place and forcing be to me more conscious of what I’m eating.”