By Nanci Hellmich
Visitors to the national parks this summer will not only get a taste of nature, they’ll get a taste of healthier fare at the parks’ restaurants, snack bars, and stores.
On June 5 the National Park Service announced a new nationwide plan — the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program — to make certain all its parks offer healthy food and beverage choices.
Some of the options: lentil soup, bison hot dogs, grass-fed beef, black-bean sliders, fish tacos, fresh tomato soup, and produce from local farms. About 23 million people buy meals in national parks each year.
“There’s no reason you should have to take a vacation from healthy eating when you’re on vacation,” says Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service. The prices of the foods at parks are set so they “are affordable to all Americans,” he says.
“Going outside to visit a national park has a lot of benefits,” Jarvis says. “You can spend time with your family. You can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. You can learn about nature and American history.
“You’re taking a walk to get a little exercise. You’re breathing fresh air, hearing the birds. It has physical and mental benefits. If you want to maximize that health benefit, we need to provide you an opportunity to eat healthy food.”
But if you want a treat, don’t despair: The parks will continue offering long-time favorites such as hot dogs and ice cream. There will be plenty of choices out there, Jarvis says.
The park service worked with the companies that supply foods and beverages to come up with new menu items and is encouraging companies to use locally grown and raised food when possible, Jarvis says.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says, “Often times the parks are isolated so there may not be many other food venues nearby. You think of going to a park as a healthier vacation because you are hiking and walking around. But if the food isn’t healthy, you may come back one or two pounds heavier and never lose it.”
Some parks have already worked on cleaning up their nutrition acts. Among the healthy options offered:
- Grand Canyon South Rim serves vegetarian options and serves vegetables or fruit as a substitute for french fries, including for kids’ meals. Among the healthy entrees: a garden vegetable pasta dish, healthy wraps made with veggies and lean protein, and entree salads such as a Mediterranean salad. “There has been a paradigm shift the past few years with people wanting and demanding healthier food and wanting to know where their food comes from,” says Matthew McTigue, executive chef at the Grand Canyon South Rim for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which runs the concessions.
- Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana uses Montana-grown lentils and split peas in soups, salads, and some entrees, says Lu Harlow, Xanterra’s director of food and beverage at the park. She tries to buy locally as much as possible. “We buy lamb and grass-fed beef from several nearby ranches which use no growth hormones or antibiotics,” she says.
“One of our challenges in all of this is that when some people are on vacation, they want to splurge,” Harlow says. “Our goal is to provide healthy options that guests want to splurge on. We continue to offer hot dogs and hamburgers, but we are offering bison hot dogs and grass-fed beef burgers. Visitors can still find a french fry, at least for now. Before long they may all be baked fries.”
- The food served at the Statue of Liberty (which reopens again July 4 after cleanup from Superstorm Sandy) was revamped last year to provide healthier food to visitors. The park now offers 15 meals under 550 calories and several under 300 calories. “What we tried to do is take everyday foods and make them healthier,” says Brad Hill, president of Evelyn Hill Inc., a family business that provides the food and beverages for the park. “People expect a cheeseburger, but our quarter-pound cheeseburger has only 515 calories. It has low-fat cheese and oat-topped wheat bun, which tastes really great. We also offer a turkey burger and veggie burger.”
- Muir Woods in California has healthy sandwiches made with foods such as line-caught tuna and free-range, hormone-free chickens, says Keith Mahoney of Ortega National Parks, which does the concessions. Breads and muffins come from a nearby organic bakery. Muffins and scones cost about $2.95 to $4.95; sandwiches, $7.95; grilled cheese, $5.95; fresh tomato soup, $9.95.
- Yosemite National Park’s customers love fresh greens and tomatoes, says Robert Anderson, a chef who works for Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts. “You get in this grand surrounding, and you’re inspired to eat healthfully. You don’t want to eat chips; you want good fuel.”