Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin wants to take you to dinner.
She's not saying she's picking up the check, but on Nov. 9, she will debut the next installment of her "Virtual Progressive Dinners," this one on the city's west side. Part of her Healthy St. Petersburg program, the idea is that participating restaurants offer drinks, appetizers, main courses or desserts that focus on healthier, lighter preparations. Yes, St. Petersburg has become nearly synonymous with craft beer and artisanal cheeseburgers, but these dinners celebrate more healthful fare.
"We've targeted restaurants with large followings and that have menus that lend themselves to this," Tomalin said recently. "The idea is to create a map that covers the entire city."
The first virtual dinner focused on 20 establishments right downtown, including Florida Trend Golden Spoon award winners like the Mill, Forbes Travel Guide highlights like the Birchwood's rooftop bar, and multiple contenders in the Tampa Bay Times Top 50 Restaurants of 2016 list, along with EAT Healthy Ambassador chef-led restaurants Stillwaters Tavern and Parkshore Grill.
Tomalin is not asking anyone to eschew bacon or deep-fried mac and cheese entirely, but rather to devote more time to thoughtful eating. But from downtown to the Edge District, Grand Central, Fourth Street and the west side, this increasingly "foodie" city has loads of options for locally sourced, organic, gluten-free, low-fat, veggie-centric and just less caloric dishes.
The Healthy St. Petersburg initiative, launched last May, is a multi-pronged effort to promote healthy behaviors and habits.
"Philosophically, the first step is people buying in. That's the prerequisite for having a sustainable impact," Tomalin said. "The program came into being because I come from a health care background. This is about attacking social and financial inequities, with a goal of shifting the culture."
That's a heavy-duty objective, one achieved by debuting a test kitchen at the Childs Park Recreation Center and partnering with several chefs and local celebrities. It's achieved by starting partnerships with University of Florida extension offices and with the Saturday Morning Market and by launching a healthy vending policy — all items sold in city-operated vending machines now meet American Heart Association standards. It's achieved by identifying local Eat Healthy Ambassadors and working toward a program that offers healthy options in local convenience stores.
So how is progress measured? Through a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Institute, there is a County Health Ranking every year. According to Tomalin, when the Healthy St. Pete program began, Pinellas County was 33rd out of 67 Florida counties in terms of overall health.
"This year we're 26th."
St. Petersburg residents and visitors can do their part by visiting healthystpetefl.com/vpd and planning dinner. There are four discrete downtown dine-around options, complete with cocktail, appetizer, entree and dessert suggestions, as well as the new maps for West St. Pete Central and West St. Pete Tyrone. When the deputy mayor says get eating, and make it something healthy, it's practically your civic duty.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.