Coming to the national parks: Better food

Grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup made from scratch at Muir Woods Café

Something unexpected is coming to America’s national parks: Healthier, better-tasting food from sustainable sources.

Hot dogs, pizza and French fries won’t disappear, but the National Parks Service, led by its admirable director, Jon Jarvis, has embarked on a effort to bring healthy, sustainable food options to the parks, which serve–are you ready for this?–more than 23 million meals a year at 250 food and beverage operations, ranging from snack bars to white tablecloth restaurants.

In a letter to park superintendents, Jarvis, who has spent his entire career working in the parks, wrote:

In addition to providing incomparable venues for recreation and relaxation, the NPS has a unique opportunity to support local agriculture and educate visitors on the importance of healthy, sustainable food choices.

To learn more, I spoke to a couple of people: Frank Dean, who is superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the Jarvis’s choice to lead the “Eat Right and Prosper” initiative, and Cleveland Justis, director of the nonprofit Institute at the Golden Gate, which produced a report, Food for the Parks: A Roadmap to Success, [PDF, download] for the parks service. [Disclosure: Cleve and I served together on the board of Net Impact.]

They told me that the healthy-food initiative began years ago when a visitor asked Brian O’Neill, who was then superintendent of the Golden Gate Area: “Why is it that you can’t get a decent meal in a national park?” Food in the parks comes from outside contractors, so first O’Neill and then Frank Dean began talking to providers to see what could be done. Eventually, they built sustainability, local and organic sourcing into the criteria by which a concessionaire is chosen.

The turnabout was most dramatic at the Muir Woods Trading Company Cafe, an eatery in the Muir Woods National Monument just north of San Francisco, where the national food-service contractor Aramark was replaced by Ortega Family Enterprises, a local firm that revamped the menu. They now serve fresh fruits, salads, organic pastries and muffins and, when possible, ingredients from neighboring farms.

The Muir Woods cafe “used to serve crappy hot dogs and hamburgers,” Cleve told me. Now, he said, “people go there for lunch. Sometimes it’s hard to get in.”

Now, with Jarvis’s backing, a nudge from Michele Obama and advice from a White House Task Force on Obesity, which recommended that all federally-managed facilities, including the parks, provide food that meets the USDA’s dietary guidelines, the effort is being rolled out gradually across the country.

“Food to match the scenery” is how Frank Dean describes the goal. New concession contracts will require at least two of the four to six core items on menus be healthy. Concessionaires will get credit for providing locally-sourced food, and organic if possible, he told me.

None of this will be forced down people’s throats, of course. “If you want to have french fries, you can,” he said. “We’ll offer that,. but maybe we’ll lead with a salad.”

Sustainably raised trout at Yellowstone National Park

Already, changes are unfolding in the parks. Cindy Ognjanov, who runs the concession at Glacier National Park, is quoted in the roadmap report saying: “We take great pride in using the ‘Made in Montana’ brand.” Forever Resorts in the Grand Tetons aims to source food from within a 350-mile radius, including beef from within 100 miles of its location. In Glacier Bay, Alaska, Aramark switched from sourcing salmon and halibut from a large supplier in Anchorage to a local source–and saved money by doing so.

Dean says one challenges for the parks is improving the quality of food without raising prices. “We know from the grocery store that organic milk costs more than regular milk, so we have to be as nimble as we can,” he said. The 60-page Roadmap report advises park managers to look for ways to save on energy and waste disposal costs, and steer some of those savings into higher quality food.

The Food-for-the-Parks initiative is one of several being spearheaded by Jon Jarvis, as the parks service prepares for its centennial in 2016. I’ve had a chance to speak with Jon a couple of times, and he’s got big ambitions for the parks. He’d like the parks to be places where people go to become healthier, fitter and more active. [See my 2011 blogpost, RX: Take hills, not pills] He’d like the parks to teach visitors about the impacts of climate change. With dozens of parks devoted to the Civil War or the civil rights movement, and others, like the Statue of Liberty, recognizing the contributions of immigrants, he’d like the parks to help Americans of all races and colors better understand their history and the nation’s.

“Every American should be able to find his or her story in a national park, in some way,” he once told me. “These are places that have the power to remind all Americans what it means to be an American. Historical literacy is important. From history comes social responsibility. We want to have an intelligent, active citizenry and the national parks can be part of that.”

Those are big ideas. By comparison, serving a healthy meal should be easy.


  1. says

    I love this story. We have the technolgy. We can build them better than they were before.(6 million dollar man quote). Healthy Habits have been around a long time. We just fail to implement them as we should. Go Jon!!!!!!!!

  2. Elizabeth Meyers says

    What about taking it a step further and offering foods that not only support sustainable practices and are healthy, but that also relate to a park’s interpretive themes and history? This is an especially relevant and achievable goal in our many culturally themed park sites, where the food offered to visitors can complement educational objectives.

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