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NCCOR member helps brings healthier food to the nation’s national parks

Aug., 5, 2013, NCCOR

In June the National Park Service (NPS) announced the Healthy Parks, Healthy People initiative, which includes healthy food standards and sustainable food guidelines designed to increase the number of healthy menu items available at national parks across the nation. National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) member, Heidi Blanck, along with her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) helped to develop these new standards.

“The Healthy and Sustainable Food Program was developed through a collaboration between the National Park Service and park food and beverage operators, concession industry leaders, and health experts to describe the current food and beverage offerings and to develop the standards, which will be integrated into all new concessions contracts and applied on a voluntary basis to existing contracts,” said Blanck, of the CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity.

The standards will apply to more than 250 food and beverage operations in U.S. national parks. The healthy food standards include requirements that fruits and vegetables be offered with all entrees, or offered a la carte as side dishes; low-fat and low-sodium options are to be available; half-servings or other reduced-portion sizes are to be offered when possible. As for drinks, at least 30 percent of those offered should have no added sugar, and low-fat and fat-free milk should be available.

As part of creating the standards, scientists from the CDC and state health departments used nutrition and beverage audit tools, adapted from tools such as the Nutrition Environment Measurement Survey, which were funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture (an NCCOR funder) to provide baseline data on food, beverages and drinking water availability, pricing, and promotion in 44 parks across the nation. The tools assessed park stores, snack shops, restaurants, vending (beverage and food), and free drinking water sources.

"The new program includes incentives and recognition opportunities for concession companies that exceed the standards and demonstrate leadership in improving the visitor experience,” said Blanck. “This type of program has the ability to not only affect the park food consumer but make changes to the food system such that healthier items are produced and available to other retail venues such as workplace cafeterias and schools.”

One of the reasons this policy is so important is because of its potential to influence the eating habits of so many Americans. NPS manages 397 national parks, employs 22,000 staff, has 221,000 volunteers and offers activity opportunities, snacks, and meals to over 280 million visitors annually, making it a major employer and one of the largest tourist destinations and food providers in the United States.

“Access to parks, trails, open spaces, and recreational facilities not only provide increased opportunities for children and adults to play and be physically active but these venues also influence other behaviors including nutrition through water, beverages, snacks, and in some cases meals,” said Blanck. “As the health and wellbeing of our children is impacted by the daily environment in which they live, learn, and play, the utility of parks and other recreation spaces are important to consider in a comprehensive view of childhood and family obesity prevention.”