Collier and Lee Counties Edition

On-the-Go Healthy Choices in Southwest Florida

Monthly cooking demonstrations at Lee Health's Healthy Life Center

 A lthough recent arrivals in Southwest Florida are unable to imagine a time when clean, healthy, organic take-out meals were only figments of the imagination, veteran vegans and vegetarians know it is true. From famine to feast in 13 years, today’s nearly 30 healthy eating establishments from Naples to Cape Coral offer diners and snackers so many delicious grab ‘n go selections that sometimes deciding on menu options comes down to a coin flip.

Community-led well-being improvement initiatives such as the Blue Zones Project and Lee Health’s Healthy Life Center at the Coconut Point Mall, in Estero, have helped to promote the demand for healthier restaurant menu options, as well as substantially more nutritious, plant-based home-cooked and worksite meals. The Blue Zones Project, launched by NCH Healthcare System in 2014, is nearly three years into its 10-year strategic plan to promote healthier lifestyles. The project has successfully recruited more than 400 local organizations such as homeowners associations, schools, faith-based organizations and restaurants that are working through the approval process to meet Blue Zone checklist items. More than 75 organizations have already implemented enough best practices to help make healthier choices easier in the community.

“My colleague, David Longfield Smith, reaches out into eating establishments and helps them to get involved,” says Deb Logan, Blue Zones Southwest Florida executive director, whose job is to help Southwest Florida communities become healthier, happier places to live, work and play. “The checklist isn’t just about more plant-based menu items, but also things such as removing salt shakers from tables, a fruit default rather than just offering French fries or chips as a side dish, a bike rack outside the restaurant, serving on 10-inch plates instead of 12, offering half-portions and allowing customers to share a plate without a fee, smaller desserts, no refills on sweetened beverages and eliminating bread or chips before a meal, in addition to other proven best practices.”

Blue Zone Projects are based on the “Power 9”. The specifics of these nine longevity lifestyle characteristics—move naturally 30 minutes five times a week, eat more plants, less meats and processed foods, drink red wine in moderation (one glass per day), have a sense of purpose, take time to relieve stress, participate in a spiritual community, make family a priority and build social connections—are fully detailed in Dan Buetnner’s book Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.

Food & Thought, Naples

The leader of healthy, organic, raw and gluten-free eating in Southwest Florida is Food & Thought, established by the Obi-Wan Kenobi of organics, the late Frank Oakes. Freedom Teague, the head chef who has photo courtesy of Food & Thoughtbeen in charge of the café since it opened in 2004, continues the tradition of offering longtime vegan and vegetarian favorites such as the Holy Yamoli wrap of yams, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and vegan mayo.

The café’s expanded eat-in and grab ‘n go selections are the result of keeping pace with the increased numbers of individuals learning about the connection between food and health from the media and lectures such as those offered in the Thoughtful Threads dining area adjacent to the café courtyard.

Salad varieties, which number 25, and four different kinds of soup, include only the highest-quality, organic ingredients. “Although we’re more concerned about quality than cost, our full meals can be purchased at the reasonable cost of $11 to $12,” says Teague, who advises that the most popular grab ‘n go item is a fish entrée with varying side dishes. In the raw food category, where initially only one daily option was offered, today there are three and sometimes four raw items.

The Bowl, Naples’ Most Recent Addition

Kylee Brinkman, owner of The Bowl, can’t help noticing that everyone she greets and serves at her store is looking for food that makes them feel and look good. “Eating photo courtesy of The Bowlhealthy and staying active are the ways to do it. Plus, when you make healthy organic food taste as good as we do, it's possible to enjoy the intense flavors and forget you’re eating something that’s good for you,” says Brinkman.

The Bowl’s entire menu consists of clean, healthy eating options that are easy take-outs. As a result, choice is challenging. “Our number one seller is the AB&J Bowl, an acai bowl with almond butter in the blend. Favorite smoothie options are the Dirty Milkshake and Good Morning,” advises Brinkman.

“The option of eight bowl varieties with organic fresh fruit, toppings and ingredients with crazy healthy benefits and kombucha on tap are all things that I'm seeing people get excited about. I’ve noticed that many individuals have never heard of things such as spirulina or goji berries, which is why my staff is trained to help educate customers,” explains Brinkman.

Pizza Fusion, in Naples and Fort Myers

Rose Gaglio Thompson, owner of Pizza Fusion’s Fort Myers and Naples locations, credits today’s interest in eating healthier at home and on the go to social media and photo courtesy of Pizza Fusionentertainment companies such as Netflix, which offers access to documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, Food Matters and Super Size Me, as well as others that educate viewers on genetically engineered foods, the link between nutrition and chronic diseases, and what pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals in food.

Since opening in 2009, the restaurant menu has been organic, all natural and designed for eat-in or take-out. Menu items, including gluten-free offerings of pizza, brownies and beer, enable gluten-sensitive individuals to indulge in some of America’s favorite foods.

“When we opened, I thought that our fresh, organic and natural offerings created a good niche and wondered how long that niche would last. Eight years and two locations later, I realize that healthy eating isn’t a niche. It’s a way of life with an endless shelf life,” says Gaglio-Thompson.

Earth Origins, Fort Myers

Jon Copeland, fresh category manager for Earth Origins Market, with 11 locations in Florida, Maryland and Massachusetts, advises, “Store associates have noted the photo courtesy of Earth Originsincreased numbers of customers who are taking the time to read labels that help them make sure they are buying the healthiest options.”

Earth Origins’ focus on building community, trust and exceptional customer service has resulted in the phenomenon of customers trusting the well-educated store associates to guide them. “Customers look up to our associates, expecting them to be informed and trusting that the information they share about our healthy food options is comprehensive, reliable and up to date,” says Copeland, who advises that the store’s produce is 100% organic. While the café offers many grab ‘n go options for vegans and vegetarians, its most popular items are massaged kale salad and the variety of quinoa salads. Vegenaise, an egg free mayonnaise alternative, is used in most items.

Ada’s Natural Market, Fort Myers

Chef Winfield Lentz of Ada’s Green Leaf Café at Ada’s Natural Market, credits Ada’s noticeable upswing in eat-in and grab ‘n go sales not only to consumer education, but also to epiphanies that many individuals photo courtesy of Ada's Natural Marketare experiencing. “Eating vegan or vegetarian doesn’t mean that meals are limited to salads and side dishes. Consumers are waking up to world cuisines from cultures where meat is not the primary resource for protein. Indian, Thai, Mexican, Greek, Lebanese and Japanese dishes are some examples of such cuisine that uses flavorful spices in recipes that are easily adaptable for home chefs to prepare,” advises Lentz.

Ada’s educates customers and the general public via a speaker series that provides valuable information on how to change a diet for present health reasons or how to have a healthier lifestyle to avoid a chronic diagnosis in the future. “We’re especially proud to be collaborating with Lee Health as the newest retail vendor that provides meal selections in the Golisano Children’s Hospital for patients and guests,” explains Lentz.  

Lee Health, an Enlightened Institution

Since 2010, System Director of Food & Nutrition for Lee Health Larry Altier has been involved in helping to design a comprehensive and multifaceted program that educates Lee Health employees and patients from a nutritional perspective. With a goal of leading individuals toward a healthier lifestyle, the latest aspect of the program includes raising awareness about the benefits of eating a plant-based diet.

“In 2014, we introduced into our retail operations a Veggie Fare food station. We began with a selection of seven made-to order vegan and vegetarian menu items for the staff. Today, Veggie Fare has 21 vegan and vegetarian items and offers grab ‘n go meals. All items are made to order, freshly prepared and predominantly organic. Our optimal nutrition approach promotes brightly colored fruits and vegetables, as well as nuts, legumes and lean meats. We avoid highly processed foods and added sugar.

In 2015, Lee Health’s Healthy Life Center at Coconut Point began offering health and wellness events. Staffed by personal health advocates and health guides, the center is a ‘go-to” place for individuals interested in learning about how to support a healthy lifestyle, as well as early detection of disease, chronic disease management and much more. Monthly cooking demonstrations, led by a registered dietitian, inspire attendees to choose better ingredients that can improve their health and to learn about weight management, cardiovascular health, slow cooking, food safety and other subjects.

A second Healthy Life Center location will open in August at Lee Health’s Wellness Center in Cape Coral. The new site will offer free health guidance, services, and education to inspire healthier lifestyles that are designed for maintaining and improving health.

The concept of educating our communities to empower and inspire healthy lifestyle choices at home, school, in the workplace or on the go is spreading throughout Southwest Florida. The only downside of helping this concept to continue growing in our communities is that more great eating choices will emerge, and we’ll need to do more coin flipping.

Local Resources

Ada’s Natural Market, 7070 College Pkwy., Fort Myers.

Earth Origins Market, 15121 S. Tamiami Tr., Ste. 104, Fort Myers, 239-210-3256.

Food & Thought, 2132 Tamiami Tr. N., Naples, 239-213-2222.

Healthy Life Center at Coconut Point, 23190 Fashion Dr., Ste. 105, Estero, 239-495-4475.

Pizza Fusion, 2146 Tamiami Tr. N., Naples, 239-262-8111.; 12901 McGregor Blvd., Ste. 5, Fort Myers, 239-337-7979.

The Bowl, 1427 Pine Ridge Rd., Ste. 103, Naples, 239-734-3867.

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