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Just How Healthy Is National Park Food For You?


A new report on how healthier meals can be served in national parks points to boosts in sustainable food production and reductions in wastes that can be achieved across the National Park System.

Hiking in a national park certainly is good for your health, but did you ever wonder whether that meal you purchased in the park was offsetting the benefits of that hike?

In a bid to help you judge, the National Park Service is working to determine just how nutritious meals purchased in the parks are.

As part of its Healthy Foods Strategy, the Park Service has retained the Centers for Disease Control's Epidemiological Service to conduct a baseline survey of the nutritional value of the food served in the National Park System.

Many park concessionaires have been working to upgrade their menus, at times offering locally grown or raised ingredients and pointing to heart-healthy items. But you still can find fastfoods in the parks, heavily salted portions, and sauces that might be overly rich.

“The food we eat plays a critical role in our health, and providing healthy food choices is one way the NPS is working to promote healthy lifestyles,” Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said in announcing the CDC partnership during a recent two-day Healthy Parks Healthy People US conference in San Francisco. “The Healthy Foods Strategy will help ensure that our 285 million annual visitors have access to healthy, sustainable, and high-quality food at reasonable prices, while reducing our overall impact on the environment.

“This initiative furthers one of our goals of Healthy Parks Healthy People US, to educate visitors on food and potentially influence the choices they make after they leave the parks,” the director added.

In looking at the availability and cost of healthy foods in various regions of the country, the Park Service aims to make informed decisions regarding healthy foods in its concession operations and build healthy food requirements into concession contract requirements. The agency has already started evaluating the health and sustainability of the food served in parks.

The new healthy and sustainable food program piloted at Muir Woods in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the first examples of how park concessions can effectively support healthy food choices, the agency said in a release.

Food for the Parks, a report featuring case studies from the National Park System, has been developed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Institute at the Golden Gate and is attached below. The report notes that part of the strategy for the Park Service is to see more grass-fed beef, shade-grown coffee, free-range poultry, organic foods, and seafood that is listed on the Seafood Watch or Marine Stewardship Council green list served in the parks.

And the agency hopes that concessionaires will be able to reduce the energy, water, and wastes associated with making their meals. The 40-page report offers four case studies to illustrate that providing park visitors with healthy foods with more efficiencies is not out of reach. Those case studies revolve around Muir Woods National Monument, Yellowstone National Park, Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in California, and Carvers Cafe at Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

In general, (in Yellowstone) Xanterra has not found that sustainable food sourcing significantly impacts its profits, and visitors appreciate the focus on organic and local sourcing. Prices of menu items have increased by small amounts, but rising costs of food in general often contribute more to price increases than sustainable sourcing. Local sourcing has helped Xanterra reduce the significant costs it incurs to transport food items to this relatively remote location. Local vendors provide beef, potatoes, produce, bread, dairy products, and unique local products such as huckleberries, game, and MSC-certified fish including salmon. Xanterra sources some of its coffee from local roasting companies and the majority of its beer from local breweries. Some vendors, including a local goat cheese farm, have been able to grow their businesses as a result of their relationship with Xanterra at Yellowstone.

Xanterra also was able to reduce its landfill wastes by 73 percent by recycling and composting, the report notes. "Xanterra owns and operates a composting facility for the entire park that turned 2.2 million pounds of waste into marketable compost in 2009," the report stated.

At Mount Rushmore, the report points out, Xanterra, which serves meals in Carvers' Cafe, has "planted a garden in the nearby town of Keystone to grow tomatoes, squash, radishes, carrots, peppers, potatoes, and onions. A greenhouse on top of the café grows spinach and other items throughout the year."

Other park units are mentioned in the report. Among them are Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, where lunches at the visitor center include organic and locally grown ingredients, and Grand Teton National Park, where concessionaires "Forever Resorts and Grand Teton Lodge Company have helped develop regional markets for organically produced food in the Mountain West."

Perhaps one of the best examples of how the Park Service can encourage sustainability when it comes to food is at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, where officials have developed a long-term strategy to help area farmers stay in business.

Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley was designated as a National Park Service unit in 1974. One of its missions is to preserve and protect its rural landscape from encroaching development, because the area has a strong history of agricultural production. Facing high turnover of short-term farmers within the park and deteriorating structures, the park teamed up with agriculture educator Darwin Kelsey in the late 1990s to write a management plan to preserve the park’s rural landscape resources through financially and environmentally sustainable farming.

The resulting Countryside Initiative, launched in 1999, is a groundbreaking partnership between between Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the Countryside Conservancy, and local farmers to connect historical preservation, local culture, environmental protection, and food production with public education and enjoyment. To date, Cuyahoga Valley National Park has signed 60-year leases with 11 farm operators, each of whom won a competitive RFP process that evaluated its business plan and financial viability.

Operations must “operate in the same general part of the sustainability spectrum” or be certified organic (2009 RFP). The 60-year lease provides farmers the stability they need to recover costs of investment in capital improvements on the land. Farmers pay fair-market-value residential rent to CVNP and a percentage of gross income as the productive rent on land use.

The Countryside Conservancy was created by CVNP to help manage the Countryside Initiative. With Darwin Kelsey as its Director, the Conservancy acts as the public face of the Countryside Initiative, provides agricultural expertise to CVNP, recruits bidders, provides recommendations on RFP drafting and proposal selection, assists existing farmers, operates two farmers markets, and has ambitions to add programs.

The Conservancy also plays the important role of facilitating communication between the different cultures of CVNP and the farmers. The current farms produce fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, eggs, poultry, meat goats, and wine. They sell their products through roadside stands, local farmers markets, local chefs, community supported agriculture, and pick-your-own operations.

Park Interpretation staff are working with the farmers to incorporate visitor education around their operations, including Junior Ranger programs that teach kids about farming and the operations at individual farms. For example, pre-schoolers draw pictures in the Butterfly Garden at Sarah’s Vineyard to learn about plants and butterflies.

At the Greenfield Berry Farm, children learn about the history of farming in the Cuyahoga Valley through a series of games. Embarking on the Countryside Initiative was not without challenges. Promoting agricultural production within NPS was a unique idea with little support when the Countryside Initiative was conceived.

To assess potential impacts and receive public input, CVNP prepared the Rural Landscape Management Program Environmental Impact Statement, which was approved in February 2004. The program also required a substantial up-front appropriation.

The program is proving to be a success; however, it requires a considerable amount of work from both the Conservancy and CVNP to maintain. Future plans for the Initiative include expanded education partnerships building farming and food curricula, farmer incubation, and consultation to other parks interested in replicating this program.

  By implementing similar strategies across the National Park System, officials believe they can not only provide healthier meals for park goers, but help build sustainable food operations.

"The cases highlighted in this report collectively hosted 14.8 million visitors and represent $116.6 million in annual revenues. Committing just 10 percent of this purchasing power toward sustainably produced foods creates a multi-million dollar driver for local and organic businesses that are producing food using environmentally responsible methods. Increasing the size of the market for these products will also bring down their prices, making them more affordable and accessible, and will have huge environmental, economic, and public health impacts," the report's authors note. "These trends are already visible in the operations and supply chains of park concessioners who serve sustainable food.

"... Park concessioners spend hundreds of millions of dollars to source their food and beverage products, and many of them do not incorporate healthy or sustainably produced items into their menus. Some may not know where to find organic products or what operational changes could make an environmental impact. This report demonstrates how some concessions have addressed the challenges they faced and aspires to show that these actions are worthwhile for concessioners, parks, and our global food system."

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It is amazing to read the hatred for the Obamas surfacing as response to this article. In every area of our life there is need to renew and refurbish and rebuild. Growing is a slow and continuous moving forward. No one aspect is more important than the other but rather each supports the other as we all find ways to improve life from out little corner of the world. I just returned from a glorious 2 week trip to Nevada, Arizona and Utah traveling by RV. Eating meals I prepared made it more enjoyable for us and a way to keep our healthy routine. When we treated ourselves to dining out at Zion and Bryce we were happily surprised to read on the menu the news of efforts to buy locally and serve healthier choices. In Zion we had smoothies made from beaufiul fresh frozen fruit that allowed our drinks to be made with more fruit and no icecubes. At Bryce Inn we delighted in two vegetarian choices one of Quinoa and one with rice and eggplant, pickled onions and a medley of vegetables. I would love the recipes since they were new versions of quinoa and rice dishes for me. Still available were the standard steaks and chicken and fish, but locally grown. It's a smarter way to operate in the wide open west. I appreciate the Parks efforts to keep me well to enjoy another visit to the great wonders of these United States.


Well - what about food that actually comes from an NPS site? There are several ranches that raise beef and dairy cattle at Point Reyes National Seashore.  Additionally there's the occasionally maligned Drake's Bay Oyster Company.
I've had somewhat of a sticker shock when checking out Drake's Beach Cafe (same building as the Kenneth Patrick Visitor Center) at PRNS, but the first item on the menu is "Drakes Bay Oyster baked in half shell, Parmesan, Leeks, Bacon". I don't think it gets any more local or sustainable.  I'm not sure how they get them.  I would think that it would make sense for an employee of the cafe to just drop by the oyster farm on the way in.

Wow, wouldn't it be great to have healthy and local food choices available from NPS concessionaires, instead of having to be force fed junk food by Delaware North Corporation and the like when inside their monopoly domains?  The cost to the NPS of including in their bidding processes and contract negotiations some specs that require healthful alternatives would be nil to nothing.  The benefits to park visitors and the public at large would be manifold, and greatly expanded still if other branches of the government and the private sector were to follow suit:  better health, lower Medicare and other insurance costs, less-polluted farmland and water supplies, reduced greenhouse gas emissions from grain-fed animals and feedlots, and improved balance of payments as less produce would be imported from distant lands, to mention a few.  When experiencing the magnificent natural splendor of a Yosemite or Grand Canyon, visitors should not have to dine on artificial chemicals supplied by organizations whose incentives are to supply the cheapest "food" available on the market.

I frankly enjoyed the cheap hot dogs and chili at the Volcano House snack bar (or whatever the room was called) at Hawai'i Volcanoes NP.  It had as nice a view as the more expensive dining room next door.  Healthy?  Probably not.  Filling and cheap.  Yes.  Unfortunately the place is closed for renovations and who knows when they reopen.

Oh - I mentioned dining options near Muir Woods NM.  One interesting one in downtown Mill Valley is Avatar's Punjabi Burritos.  The name is self-explanatory.

I'll tell ya, those burritos at Bandelier National Monument, even for that 2nd night in the back country, it really hits the spot. And those bacon cheddar cheese burgers at Hurricane Ridge Visitors Center in Olympic National Park are to die for, especialy after some days of wander. I was in total food heaven last fall in that big cafeteria next to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It was loaded with what looked to me to be heatlthy food choices. There are a few lodges in our National Parks that I will never eat in again.
I do like and support the push for healthy, sustainable and local foods in our National Parks.
Who wouldnt?

KC Traveler:
Wow! This topic really hit a nerve with some people. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Muir Woods last year. It was a little pricey, but about what I expected for a NPS site in California. It was nice to have some healthy alternatives for my kids. We weren't forced to eat there and I didn't feel as though the NPS was telling me what to eat. There's always the option (which we do quite often) of bringing your own food when visiting national parks. Having said all that, I certainly enjoy eating at a greasy spoon from time to time. It's nice to have a choice.

   Muir Woods has no picnic areas. They did set up so temporary picnic tables outside the main entrance during the snack bar remodel though, but that's gone. Certainly there are other options for dining near Muir Woods, but they're all several miles away by car.

I suppose one can probably munch away on a sandwich or energy bar while walking at Muir Woods, but try and sit down on a bench with a picnic lunch. They have limited seating areas and I don't think they're too keen on diners taking up the limited spaces for long periods.

Can I picnic in the park?
Unfortunately, no. The park is simply too small a space for so many people to enjoy picnicking without impacting the very forest which they are here to visit. Picnicking also leads to a higher level of litter and human food in the park, which is not good for native animals. However, there are several picnic areas nearby, including Muir Beach, Muir Beach Overlook, and Bootjack Picnic Area.

Wow! This topic really hit a nerve with some people.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Muir Woods last year.  It was a little pricey, but about what I expected for a NPS site in California. It was nice to have some healthy alternatives for my kids.  We weren't forced to eat there and I didn't feel as though the NPS was telling me what to eat.  There's always the option (which we do quite often) of bringing your own food when visiting national parks.  Having said all that, I certainly enjoy eating at a greasy spoon from time to time.  It's nice to have a choice.

Well - there is the case of Louis', a diner on the edge of a cliff in San Francisco. The land was purchased by the NPS to be added to Golden Gate NRA.

Apparently because it has an annual revenue higher than $500,000, the contract was required to be put up for bid. The use of "local and sustainable" ingredients also became a factor in the selection. This was a family operated restaurant that had been with them for over 70 years. It was a greasy spoon and proud of it. They had to guarantee a whole bunch of things that frankly seemed out of character for what it was. The contract was also treated as if they were a concession in an NPS setting where there were few options. We're talking San Francisco, where there are dozens (maybe even hundreds) of places to eat within a reasonable distance.

I'm not really a big fan of what happened at Muir Woods. What I noticed was that the prices shot up. I really don't want to pay over $6 for a simple hot dog. It was about half the price under the previous operator (was it Aramark?).

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