Philadelphia Lite

The city of cheese steaks and Tastykakes tries to shape up with a program to fight fat.

April 18, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- It's only a brisk, 30-minute hike from Pat's King of Steaks to Philadelphia's Center City, barely enough time to walk off a midmorning cheese steak before an 11:30 a.m. seating at Le Bec-Fin.

Yet the two institutions may as well occupy different planets.

You can dine at Pat's on East Passyunk 24 hours a day, and eating is strictly alfresco. That's just as well, since you don't so much eat a cheese steak as bathe in it.

At Le Bec-Fin, you are coddled by a solicitous wait staff while sweet business deals are struck over martinis and snails simmer in champagne and hazelnut-butter sauce. Butter for rolls arrives at table pressed into a silver terrine with a dainty lid.

But on a molecular level, fat looks pretty much the same no matter who serves it, and Philadelphia, from Passyunk to Maple, is too darn Phat. The devastating news came early in 1999, when Men's Fitness magazine ranked American cities in order of portliness. The city that prides itself on being a foodie heaven hung its double chin in shame at its first-place finish.

The public humiliation prompted newly elected mayor John F. Street, a fitness fanatic himself, to hire old friend Gwen W. Foster as the city's health and fitness czar, a position outside the standard health department. Foster quickly launched the "Fun, Fit and Free" initiative, a flurry of public programs in schools, churches and other places designed to teach Philadelphia how to live more healthfully.

Foster, an effervescent champion of clean living, persuaded 25 restaurants to stress healthier offerings, go lean on the meat and substitute vegetable purees for butter and cream. She also went into the trenches, offering a free two-week camp for the morbidly obese. Foster led aerobic line dances, starred in a weekly cable television show and tirelessly preached the gospel of more water, fruit and vegetables.

Then in February, Foster's office teamed up with the Philadelphia 76ers to launch the "76 Tons of Fun" campaign, challenging residents to collectively lose 76 tons in 76 days. The campaign quickly became an irresistible story for media from Israel to Korea.

At weigh-in sites established in gyms, churches, city offices and hospitals, an estimated 30,000 program participants chart their progress. Eating foods high in fiber is just one of the challenges presented to participants in the weight-loss marathon. They also are encouraged to exercise more, consume lots of fiber, "eat like a king for breakfast, a queen for lunch and a pauper for supper." The program also targets mental well-being by encouraging the development of "meaningful relationships with friends and family."

That the 76 Tons of Fun effort overlapped in March with a Philadelphia tradition called the Book and the Cook Festival, a 10-day gastronomic orgy, underscores Philadelphia's complicated love affair with food, not to mention the devilish chore of squaring opposing civic duties.

Even as Mayor Street was extolling the benefits of low-fat living, he was inviting thousands to enjoy five-course dinners and designer brews in his city's top-flight restaurants. His open letter in the festival program preceded a full-page ad featuring three cheerfully corpulent chefs touting a local culinary-arts school.

The mayor couldn't catch a break in the press, either. During the festival week, the Philadelphia Inquirer led its food section with a story about the glories of cheese and inside featured a recipe for chocolate salami, which called for chocolate, butter, sugar and, horror upon horrors, egg yolks.

Such ironies don't deter Foster, a self-described "change agent" who received her master's degree in public health from Loma Linda University. While the health department reports epidemics, "I get to report outbreaks of health," she says. She's a whirling dervish of activity, delivering inspirational speeches, scrambling tofu, plotting a block-by-block assault on lousy eating habits, pausing only to chat with Leeza Gibbons or the "Today" show.

After a round of public exercise, meetings and phone calls, Foster, a vegan at home, picks at a slice of office-party cheesecake (she's no fanatic) and marvels that her program has achieved "buy-in at every level." It operates on a shoestring -- she receives $79,000 annually from the city's budget, and there's a little money for two secretaries who are barely able to keep pace with media and public requests. Everything else is supported through corporate contributions and volunteer efforts.

Foster's ready for those who think a city government should focus exclusively on schools, crime and trash. There is "absolutely a connection between health and urban blight," she says. Many of those who suffer from obesity are isolated in neighborhoods without access to fresh produce, and years of oppression have cost them the self-esteem required to maintain a healthy weight, Foster says.

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