PORTLAND – The days are numbered when Terry Collins and others may find some of their favorite foods at the Clock Tower Cafe in City Hall.
City officials plan to stop serving many items that are considered unhealthy and replace them with more healthy alternatives. It’s one of several obesity-fighting initiatives planned over the next two years, funded by a $1.8 million federal grant.
Customers at the city-operated cafe are abuzz over the prospect of giving up or accepting healthier versions of the massive muffins, fresh-baked pizza and gooey macaroni and cheese that are menu staples. Some people say it’s a good move. Others say it’s unnecessary.
Collins, who works near City Hall, balks at the idea of government trying to dictate what he eats. He stops by the cafe most mornings to pick up a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. And every lunch hour he orders a roast beef sandwich with bacon, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayonnaise on multigrain bread.
He’s also slim and said he works out four times a week and his blood pressure and cholesterol levels are good.
“I get bacon every single day,” said Collins, 44, holding a paper-wrapped sandwich. “But just because I eat bacon doesn’t mean I’m unhealthy. And I don’t want turkey bacon. They already offer plenty of healthy food choices here. People are going to eat what they want. You can’t legislate food choice.”
Doug Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services, said he doesn’t want to dictate people’s eating habits, but he does want to increase healthy offerings at the cafe.
He feels an obligation given his job title and the fact that six of 10 Cumberland County residents are obese, he said. The grant will be used for a variety of programs meant to improve nutrition and increase physical activity in the city, from installing salad bars in all public schools to increasing bike lanes and pedestrian access.
“If we don’t address this issue, this generation of children will live shorter lives than their parents,” Gardner said. “We couldn’t accept this grant with a clear conscience and not look at what we offer at the cafe.”
Tucked in the basement of City Hall, the cafe is a take-out lunch counter without seating that serves 100 to 150 people each weekday. It draws workers from City Hall, local businesses and downtown construction sites, as well as students from nearby Portland High School.
It has a salad bar and offers a variety of sandwiches and daily specials, including a hot entree and a soup made at the Barron Center, a long-term care facility operated by the city. Prices range from $1 for a cup of coffee to $4 for an entree.
The cafe’s menu is being redeveloped by a dietitian and a nutritionist funded by the grant, Gardner said. They plan to survey customers to learn what foods they would like to see in the cafe.
Despite their popularity, items such as sugar-sweetened drinks and whoopie pies will disappear, Gardner said. Dishes like macaroni and cheese and taco salad may be reinvented using low-fat and whole-grain ingredients and be served in smaller, more appropriate portions. The nutritional values of different foods will be highlighted and healthier options will be featured.
“You shouldn’t have to go to the bottom of the cooler to find yogurt and fruit,” Gardner said. “Does the special of the day have to be a sandwich and a bag of chips? Why can’t it be a sandwich and an apple? And if you want a 700-calorie whoopie pie, there are plenty of other places you can go to get one of those.”
Gardner said he hopes to roll out the new menu by the end of October. Any changes would be covered by the cafe’s $70,000 annual budget.
He plans to renovate the cafe in time for a grand re-opening, replacing worn flooring and adding a more welcoming service counter.
The pending menu changes don’t faze Rhonda Jones, a project manager in the housing office at City Hall.
“I usually get a salad for lunch and I generally try to make healthy choices,” Jones said. “But every once in a while you have one of those mornings when you want a scone.”
Jones said city employees look forward to different specials, and word spreads when popular items, such as whoopie pies or taco salads, are available.
“We all go crazy for the taco salad,” Jones said. “It’s probably not the best thing, but we love it. If they can find a way to make that healthier, using grilled chicken instead of ground beef, and low-fat cheese and sour cream, that would be great.”
Deputy Fire Chief Terry Walsh said he doesn’t need help making healthy food choices, but he’s open to having more options. Walsh works at the Central Fire Station near City Hall and he’s a regular customer at the cafe. On Friday morning, he purchased a muffin and fruit-flavored bottled water.
“I presume we’re all adults and we’re capable of making wise decisions on our own,” Walsh said. “But we should offer people the opportunity to choose healthier foods.”
Travis Adams has more focused concerns. He’s a technical services supervisor whose office is directly across the hall from the cafe. For Adams, it’s all about having regular access to hot coffee and the positive vibe of the cafe’s charismatic cook, Milton Hammith.
“If they don’t take away the coffee, I’ll be fine,” Adams said. “And they better keep Milton. I love Milton and hearing the dulcet tones of his singing. If he’s not here, I can’t get my day started.”
Hammith, for his part, said, “I think they should bring on the healthy options but continue to give people a choice.”
Gardner said he’s aware of the cafe’s popularity. Last year, he met a couple of cruise ship passengers who said they make a point of stopping in the cafe whenever they visit the city. He doesn’t want to diminish its appeal.
“My mission is to enhance the health and well-being of Portland residents,” Gardner said. “I believe we can provide options that are appealing, satisfying and nutritional.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: