It may not be as historic as the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall, but Philadelphia’s other star attraction—the cheese steak—boasts just as much staying power. The thinly sliced strips of beef, stuffed into crusty hoagie rolls and slathered with onions, peppers and melted cheese, are so popular they’re served 24 hours a day in the City of Brotherly Love. “Philadelphia,” says Gwen Foster, the city’s health and fitness czar, “is cheese steaks.”
And, she hardly needs to add, Philadelphia is seriously overweight, thanks to unhealthy eating habits and inactive lifestyles. Which is why Mayor John Street, upset that Men’s Fitness magazine last year named Philadelphia America’s Fattest City—based in part on its 30 percent obesity rate—put his city on a diet. In February 2000 he launched Fun, Fit and Free, an ongoing public health program. “There are a lot of people whose imagination has been captured by this thing,” says Street, 57, a fitness buff since peeling off 70 lbs. when he was in his early 20s.
Guided by Foster, Philadelphians have been feeling the burn in mass aerobics classes and Rocky-style runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then there’s the Philly Line Dance. Created and taught in free classes by exercise guru Sandy Weston, 41, whom Foster appointed to the city’s fitness committee last year, the dance is being performed in offices, classrooms and basketball arenas around the city. “Philly people love to have a good time,” says Weston. She pauses, then adds a little wistfully, “They also love to eat.”
The cornerstone of the program is 76 Tons of Fun, a pound-shedding plan that has enlisted 30,000 residents. Launched in February at a Philadelphia 76ers basketball game, the challenge—to lose a collective 76 tons—will run through July 4 (official results will be made public in several months). “I knew we could get the masses motivated,” says 76ers co-owner Pat Croce, who devised the weigh-off. He credits Foster with leading the charge. “Gwen,” he notes, “is on it like a zealot.”
Such zeal is typical of the hardworking Foster. Since beginning her four-year term in March 2000, the 58-year-old public health professional has led outdoor aerobics classes, met with restaurateurs and other leaders in the food industry to include healthier menu options and instituted a buddy system to help keep dieters on track. “I walk around the city so much that I could probably lose the 76 tons myself,” says the 5’7″ Foster, who has shed 20 lbs. in 15 months using the Fun, Fit and Free regimen.
A Seventh-Day Adventist who adheres to her religion’s mostly vegetarian dietary code, Foster and her husband, Allen, 61, a school administrator (wed since 1963, they have two children: Joya, 36, a music teacher; and Angela, 32, a government marketing specialist), take daily morning walks in Fairmount Park. “We meet people out there all the time,” she says, “and they talk about the program.” Adds Allen: “She’s pretty much on this job 24-7.”
The daughter of an interior decorator and an elementary school teacher, Foster moved with her parents and two brothers from Louisville to Philadelphia when she was 11. In 1978 she received her master’s degree in public health from California’s Loma Linda University and soon after began organizing fitness camps in rural Pennsylvania for those struggling with obesity.
While Philadelphians’ enthusiasm for Foster’s program has been strong, it has not been without controversy. City Councilman James Kenney has been a vocal critic of using taxpayer dollars to fund her $79,000 annual salary rather than spending that money to support local businesses. Obesity, says Kinney, “is not the biggest problem facing [Philadelphia].”
Yet it is clearly a health risk for many of its 1.5 million residents. As for whether they are ready to forsake their beloved cheese steaks, though, Geno Vento, co-owner of Genb’s Cheese Steaks in South Philadelphia, doubts it. “When people come here,” he says, “they want the real thing.”
Olivia Abel in Philadelphia