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Travel: National Parks boost healthy, sustainable food

The cafeteria at Muir Woods National Monument in California showcases organic, locally produced foods.

The cafeteria at Muir Woods National Monument in California showcases organic, locally produced foods. bberwyn photo.

New guidelines also encourage shift to locally produced food

By Bob Berwyn

Hot dogs and hamburgers will remain on the menu at 250 national park snack bars and restaurants, but 23 million park visitors are also finding healthier options like fish tacos and yogurt parfaits.

The changes come under a new two-part set of rules finalized in April 2013 and  rolled out across the country this summer.

“Park visitors are going to  see really tasty choices that are healthy for them, with sustainable attributes, some regionality and a softer environmental footprint,” said Kurt Rausch, a National Park Service contracting specialist who helped develop the new guidelines for businesses offering food sales in parks.

New standards will require healthy food options to be integrated into contracts for operating food service facilities in national parks. And a set of voluntary guidelines will encourage and reward restaurant operators for using locally grown, sustainable and organic products.

The big companies that operate food service operations in the parks recognize growing consumer demand for healthy and sustainable food, Rausch said. As in other economic sectors, federal contracting guidelines can help set the tone for the private sector.

Already, a supplier for national parks has been able to leverage connections with organic food producers to make additional sales outside the national park system, he explained.

Following a national trend, the national park restaurants will also  display new signs and nutritional data, including calorie counts, to help customers make informed decisions.

Several national park sites ran a pilot program the last few years, including the cafeteria at Muir Woods National Monument, where nearly every menu item is made with organic food from local farms. The Muir Woods cafeteria and the restaurant at the Statue of Liberty have both earned local and national awards for their sustainable food efforts.

Those test sites garnered nearly all positive feedback from park visitors, which helped convince the park service to forge ahead with the initiative.

The agency collaborated with park food and beverage operators, concession industry leaders and health experts to develop the standards, which will be integrated into all new concessions contracts and applied on a voluntary basis to existing contracts.

“We intend to promote concessioners that are doing this and we’ll be able to monitor how we’re doing with our regular surveys to make sure they’re getting what they’re looking for in terms of healthy and sustainable food,” Rausch concluded.

Lu Harlow, director of Xanterra’s food service program at Yellowstone National Park, said her company has already been sourcing healthy local food for several years.

“We put a lot of our focus on supporting local economies … What can we do to help keep people in their family farms, finding food produced within 500 miles, grown without hormones and antibiotics,” Harlow said.

“We’ll beforming more partnerships with local farmers, trying to keep it healthy and close and looking at the carbon footprint,” Harlow said, adding that XanTerra is helping local producers gain the needed certification to become a supplier for national park restaurants.

The Healthy & Sustainable Food Program is a key pillar of the Healthy Parks, Healthy People US initiative, established by the park service in 2011 to better link public health and the mission of public parks and public lands.

In addition to providing more nutritious food options, the National Park Service is encouraging concessioners to incorporate sustainable food sourcing and service practices.  The use of locally grown or raised items, when available, provides fresh food, reduces environmental impacts, and supports regional economies.

“When it comes to serving items like beef and vegetables, we are returning to our roots,” Harlow said.

“Whenever possible and practical, we offer healthy foods that are good for our guests, our neighbors and our park. Because there are now more organic farms and local growers in the region, we have more choices to source close-to-the-ground and organic foods than ever before. It’s a win for our guests, a win for us and a win for our suppliers.”

Concessioners from the Muir Woods in California to the Statue of Liberty in New York have already received local and national restaurant awards for their efforts. In addition, the first National Park Service Healthy Parks, Healthy People Award nominations have been accepted and winners, including those in the healthy food category, will be announced in July.

The new Standards and Guidelines and other healthy and sustainable food resources are available on the NPS web site http://concessions.nps.gov.

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