The consumption of rubbery hot dogs and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches of indeterminate age is a time-honored rite of passage for generations of families making the trek to national parks around the country.
But the National Park Service is determined that the American experience now include the option of free-range chicken breast with sweet potato cake and fennel salad, or cumin-scented rockfish tacos, maybe topped off with a locally grown berry yogurt parfait, all washed down with shade-grown coffee picked by workers whose rights have been protected under fair-trade agreements.
The park service last week introduced new food standards that will eventually require concessionaires at all national parks, from the Statue of Liberty to Denali, to offer healthy food options, including fruits and vegetables, low-sodium and low-fat meals, reduced portion sizes, and non-sugary drinks.
The initiative also includes guidelines encouraging concessionaires to use local, sustainable foods when possible, including seafood certified as sustainable, meat without hormones and antibiotics, and coffee harvested using worker-friendly standards.
The effort, part of first lady Michelle Obama’s healthy diet initiative, is based on the premise that a family journey to Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon should not compromise one’s nutritional well-being.
“There is no reason to take a vacation from eating well when you visit a national park,” park service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told an audience last week at a food kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial where the program was unveiled and free samples handed out.
Millions of tourist dollars and billions of calories are at stake. The park service sells meals to 23 million people each year, and the standards will apply to more than 250 food and beverage operations nationwide.
Wary of backlash from critics of “food police,” administration officials are careful to note that hot dogs, pizza, soda and ice cream will still be available.
“This is about choices,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week. “There are still the other choices, if you want to buy them.”
In a telephone interview from California, sustainable-foods pioneer Alice Waters applauded the park service initiative. “This is an enormous opportunity for the parks to set an example for the nation, because they are present in every state, in very visible locations,” she said.
Waters said she had an “epiphany” about park service food a decade ago while visiting the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and stopping at a park eatery.
“The food was brought in from God knows where, maybe dropped from another planet,” she recalled.
The Chez Panisse founder and her distraught traveling partners were regrouping outside when Waters realized they were standing in a patch of purslane. Waters fell to her knees, picked bunches of the edible leaf vegetable, washed them and whipped up a purslane salad. “I always travel with olive oil and salt,” she noted.
Waters said the national parks can make similar use of their local food sources to connect visitors with the surrounding environment in meaningful ways.
Jewell, who previously served as chief executive for outdoors outfitter REI, acknowledged that meals had not been a highlight of her visits to national parks.
“Let’s just say I packed my own food,” she said.
The new era in park service food was on display at last week’s event, as chefs from major concessionaires dispensed free samples of menu items, including bison tenderloin, black bean sliders, sweet potato cakes, chilled strawberry rhubarb gazpacho and summer fruit spritzers.
The cuisine received almost universally positive reviews from samplers, including tourists who stumbled on the event, federal workers on lunch breaks, visiting schoolchildren from Louisiana and a small pack of pedicab drivers delighted with the free food and drink.
“Refreshing and decadent,” Jennifer Schoenborn of Reston declared after tasting a berry yogurt parfait with cinnamon crisp.
The healthy food standards will be integrated into all new concessions contracts and applied on a voluntary basis to existing contracts. Existing contracts will be replaced as they expire with new ones incorporating the standards.
Gerry Gabrys, chief executive of Guest Services Inc., a major park concessionaire, said the companies have seen a growing public demand for healthy food. “Without exception, the national park concessionaires are excited and wholeheartedly support the initiative,” he said.
Park officials want to avoid comparisons to New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ill-fated attempt to ban the sale of super-size sodas in the city.
“We’re not doing that,” Jarvis said. “But there will be a non-sugary beverage available. If you want a sugary drink, you can drink as much sugary drink as you like.”
The standards dictate that at least 30 percent of drinks offered have no added sugar and that low-fat and fat-free milk be available.
The local- and sustainable-food guidelines will depend on availability and cost. “I can’t dictate locally grown if nothing is locally grown,” Jarvis said. “In the middle of Idaho, I can certainly do potatoes, but maybe not arugula.”
Some park concessionaires are already working with local farmers and vendors to prepare items such as Mount Rushmore’s “Lakota popcorn,” from the harvest of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe.
The healthy food standards do not apply to concessionaires operating in the backcountry, such as outfitters running multi-day raft trips through the Grand Canyon, where food has to be carried as compactly as possible.
Nor does the service dare mess with calorie-laden but popular traditional fare. The popovers at Acadia’s Jordan Pond House and the “caldera” chocolate cake at Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone will remain on the menu.