US National Parks Shift to Sustainable Food

The Muir Woods Cafe in Marin, California has become a destination unto itself

Preservation and enjoyment of the environment is the primary mission of the US national park system, and it is surprising that this goal does not always transfer to the food offered at the parks. As the health of citizens is reliant on both the conservation of the environment and access to healthy foods, it is laudable that the park system is advancing the profile of its food options.

A recent report draws attention to a handful of parks that are setting the bar for sustainable, healthy eating in the parks system.

Over 286 million people visit the National Parks each year, creating a significant market for food producers.

The report explains, "Sourcing even a portion of park food and beverages from sustainable producers would drive millions of dollars into organic production, small businesses, and local economies."

Case studies are presented on four park food providers: Yellowstone Lodges at Yellowstone National Park, Muir Woods Cafe at Golden Gate National Park, Crocker Dining Hall at Asilomar State Beach, and Mount Rushmore Cafe at Mount Rushmore.

These four locations generally excelled at integrating healthier menu items, increasing local sourcing of food (as much as possible, depending on location), reducing energy use and creation of waste, and selling more sustainable food items. The definition of "sustainable" was not rigidly defined. Rather, specific types of food were encouraged, such as grass-fed beef, free-range and USDA organic labeled meat and poultry, USDA-certified organic produce, shade-grown coffee, and seafood listed on the Seafood Watch or Marine Stewardship Council green list.

The case studies highlight the challenges parks face when moving towards sustainable food: costs, contract bidding challenges, bureaucratic obstacles, outdated and inappropriate facilities, the preferences of visitors, and location of vendors.

The uphill battle the park system is fighting serves as a microcosm for the larger challenges faced by the national food system in setting priorities and redefining ideal foods. One of the challenges faced by parks is training staff to cook food that is not packaged and processed-- many of the workers were not used to preparing anything other than conventional packaged, processed food. Visitors to the park generally demanded familiar food items at a low cost.

The fact that John Muir Cafe has been one of the most successful points to the need for an educated and engaged customer base-- the importance of a supportive culture committed to sustainable food.

While reforming the food of the National Park System will be difficult, the purchasing power and symbolic sway of the large and influential park system will lead to more producers offering increasingly accessible and affordable food options for the general population.

Photo Credit: Stephan Mazurov