Monday, Jan 14, 2013
It was never the intention that “America’s Best Idea” would include food in our parks that was often unhealthy and of poor quality – it just happened. But in 2003, the legendary late superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Brian O’Neill, was challenged by Susan Clark, the director of the Columbia Foundation, to eliminate the disparity between parks offering the best of nature but some of the worst of gastronomy.
Never one to step back from a challenge, Brian O’Neill decided to make healthy, sustainable park food a cornerstone of his tenure. O’Neill and several fellow food visionaries started locally at Muir Woods. With the concession coming up for renewal in 2008, the Park Service developed contract requirements that stressed a more sustainable approach to the food service. It took a dedicated team of legal, logistical, and culinary experts to deliver the goods, but the payoff has been worthwhile.
Since its “re-launch” in 2009, Muir Woods Café has become an enormous success for all involved. Local farmers are benefiting from demand for their food, the concessionaire has seen growing revenues, and the park is receiving accolades for its foresight and hard work. The food has even been featured on the Food Network’s show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
Meanwhile, customers on Yelp and other online review sites have overwhelmingly given the café two thumbs up, declaring the fare “delightful,” “surprising,” “one of the best post-hike meals you can have,” and, of course, “delicious awesomeness.” One particularly enthusiastic patron even said the food was the “main attraction” of the park.
The Institute at the Golden Gate, a partner of the Park Service, cut its teeth on the “Food for the Parks” project and defined itself as a place where good ideas are turned into good practices. Inspired by the work done in its own backyard at Muir Woods, the institute compiled examples of best practices from parks nationwide in its report, Food for the Parks. Shortly afterwards, it published a second report, A Roadmap to Success, offering easily-replicated strategies to help any park seeking to change.
No one was more inspired by the nascent food movement than Director Jon Jarvis, who announced in his “Call to Action” that a healthy food program would be launched. A team consisting of the institute’s food program and staff at National Park Service’s commercial services division began to examine ways to create standards and guidelines that would be included in all new contracts issued to food concessionaires operating in parks around the country.
Frank Dean, superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the champion of the national “Food for the Parks” campaign, recognizes “that a lot of parks aren’t in urban areas, so we look at what’s feasible. If you’re in the desert or a remote area, the standards can be adjusted.”
The next step is for the “Food for the Parks” team to focus on two iconic parks that will be requesting contract bids, Yosemite and Grand Canyon. Ultimately, the goal is for the new guidelines to be met throughout the park system, thereby bringing millions of healthy, sustainable meals to customers in parks every year throughout the United States. With a significant number of ingredients likely to come from local farms, it can improve the food chain in powerful ways.
Another new initiative is also underway to take the good work in our national parks to other sectors and communities. In March, the institute, in conjunction with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Stone Barns Center in New York, is hosting a high-level gathering that will connect park leaders with CEOs and other change-makers in food retail, education, health and other sectors. The aim is to inspire each other to continue the momentum in developing systems that deliver healthy, sustainable food for all.
To learn more about the spread of healthy, sustainable fare in our parks, be sure to read the recent article in the latest issue of National Parks Magazine.