By Rose Hoban

Call me quixotic, but I think it’s possible to eat healthy food at the North Carolina State Fair. You just have to put in some effort and have a little creativity.

And this year, if you want to find salad or corn on the cob, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is giving you a hand in the form of an interactive website.

NCDACS spokeswoman Jen Kendrick demos their new Food and Ride Finder app. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“You put in a key word, like ‘corn,’ and you get a listing of who’s doing it and a map of where it is,” said Jen Kendrick, a public information officer for NCDACS.

It’s easy to find the reliable healthy choices: boiled peanuts and corn on the cob top the list.

I tried entering the word “cob” into the Food and Ride Finder app and got back at least a half-dozen entries for corn on the cob. I also got back several entries for “cobbler,” which is probably not as healthy.

“I see people walking around with ears of corn, which is good,” said Sue Havala-Hobbs, a nutritionist who teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill and writes a food and health column for the News & Observer. “But if it’s drenched in butter, that’s an issue. In the scheme of things though, relative to other fair food, then it’s not half bad.”

[pullquote_right]What are you eating at the N.C. State Fair? Tweet us a photo @NCHealthNews[/pullquote_right]Havala-Hobbs acknowledged that folks like to go to the fair and have a treat, but said you need to be cautious. By some analyses, something as small as a deep-fried Oreo has more than 130 calories, most of it from fat and sugar. That could be close to 10 percent of the daily caloric intake recommended for a woman. The target intake for a woman trying to maintain her weight is 1,500 to 1,800 calories; for a man, it’s 1,800 to 2,300 calories. Two of those Oreos and “just a little bit” of cotton candy, and someone like me has eaten a quarter of their daily calories.

And that’s before the fried sausage and peppers for dinner.

Skyler Thompson hands Marlo Duncan a baked potato. Duncan had hers with cheese and onions added. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Those blooming onions I’ve seen can be 1,200 calories,” Havala-Hobbs said. “We really are talking about treading with caution, because a lot of those foods have so much added to them. They’re doctored up with added fat, sugar and salt to make them really tasty.”

And let’s not talk about this year’s offering of a candy bar stuffed inside of a Twinkie and deep fried.

Ask a carnival worker

“I have to be careful what I eat because I’m out here all my life,” said Marlo Duncan, who said she has diabetes. She works at game concessions along with her husband, who she said helps her watch what she eats.

When I met her, she was getting a baked potato at a booth selling baked and sweet potatoes. She got hers with some onions and cheese on top; she also added garlic salt. She said that if her husband was close by, she’d be skipping the cheese.

My sweet potato clocked in at about 200 calories total including a generous dollop of sour cream, about the same as 1.5 deep-fried Oreos. Difference was: This was my lunch. It kept me feeling full for several hours. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Duncan was also eyeing the sweet potato I was eating. I skipped the offerings of maple syrup or brown sugar and had the guy behind the counter put half a scoop of sour cream on it (about 50 calories for two tablespoons). I added Old Bay seasoning.

“That looks good,” she said. “I love sweet potatoes; you can put cheese and pico de gallo on them, anything. And they’re so good for you.”

Duncan agreed with my strategy of asking the server to alter things to suit you.

“At the gyro place, I’ll tell them to put the lettuce and veggies and all the stuff in a bowl,” she said. “Everyone will alter anything to what you want.”

She praised a fair in Illinois, where she described eating fresh sushi. She also gushed over the Minnesota State Fair, which she said had the “best food ever.” The Minnesota fair has a reputation for culinary creativity along with healthy options.

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Sue Havala-Hobbs’ suggestions for healthy eating at the N.C. State Fair

boiled peanuts

corn on the cob or popcorn

candy/caramel apples

shish kabobs or pita offerings

steak sandwiches

hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabouleh, baba ganoush

share that turkey drumstick!


When asked about healthy eating, other fair workers immediately pointed me in the direction of John “The Greek” Koutoufaris, who has been running concessions at the N.C. State Fair for 25 years. This year, he has several trailers, including two that offer lamb, chicken and vegetarian gyros and Greek salads.

When asked if it’s “necessary” for people to eat fried food at a state fair, he quipped, “Here they do.”

Koutoufaris explained that when he cooks the lamb for the gyros, most of the fat runs off onto the pan under the lamb.

“I think it’s healthy,” he said. “We also have shish kabob; they go right on the grill, a little oil, vinegar and lemon juice to make them right.”

Other Mediterranean-style food at the fair includes offerings from Raleigh’s Neomonde Bakery and Party in a Pita, run by Samir Yehya, who also is from Raleigh.

Samir Yehya has been serving up pitas and vegetarian options at the N.C. State Fair for eight years. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Yehya has a variety of vegetarian options that include a hummus plate, baba ganoush, tabouleh salad, stuffed grape leaves and a portobello mushroom pita.

“We like to give [vegetarians] a choice,” he said.

And the Lee’s Kitchen trailer has Jamaican jerk chicken that Paula Pierce said is pre-baked and then grilled on the premises. She’s also got rice and beans and a vegetable stew of corn, carrots, string beans and cabbage.

The “rice and …” strategy is something Havala-Hobbs said is a good one.

“Look for food that includes mixtures of rice and vegetables or where the meat is in bits rather than a huge honking piece,” she said.

If you can’t go healthy, you can go local

When asked about serving healthy food at the fair, a group of culinary arts students from Fayetteville Technical College started to titter.

Students from the school will be working at the American Culinary Federation truck near the Got to Be NC Agriculture tent (just inside Gate 11) to raise money for their school-based programs that promote healthy eating. To do that, they’ll be serving bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, Cajun seared catfish sliders with creamy coleslaw and remoulade sauce and sweet potato fries, among other offerings.

Fayetteville Tech culinary arts students (l to r) Donna Dillard, Sheri Ransom, Tammy Hudson, Dominique Dixon and Jason Cox were getting ready for their food truck to go live this weekend with some locally sourced treats. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The irony was not lost on the students.

Their supervisor, Chris Donato, said the money raised will support educational programs that include teaching kids how to get “5-A-Day” fruits and vegetables into their diets.

“While we’re chefs and cooks, we do a lot of charitable work,” Donato said, “but we have to pay for it.”

The NCDACS’s Kendrick suggested folks stop by the Got to Be NC Agriculture tent, which is right outside the Gov. Kerr Scott Building.

“You can try all kinds of local products,” she said. “Juvenate has these new smoothies you can buy at Food Lion. They have muscadine grapes and local strawberries and blueberries; they’re from Eastern North Carolina.”

Kendrick pointed out that once you get off the Midway, many of the booths are run by organizations from around the state that raise money at the fair or are run by local businesses. Last year, when NCDACS surveyed, they found that 63 percent of the vendors had a local tie.

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