National parks push for sustainable food services

Mesa Verde adding healthy and locally sourced menu options.

New federal rules will encourage use of local meats, produce and dairy

If your spring or summer travel plans this year include a national park visit, be sure to check out the healthier food options that are showing up in cafeterias and restaurants at our public lands crown jewels — and if you find some, be sure to give the chef and the park a shout-out to help encourage the transition to more sustainable eating habits.

You’ll still be able to order up a burger and fries, but you may also find a goat cheese salad served on a bed of arugula — all organic and produced at local farms. New menu items like fish tacos and yogurt parfaits are all part of the National Park Service Healthy Foods, Healthy People initiative, including new rules encouraging restaurant operators in the parks to emphasize sustainability.

The rules apply to private companies seeking to operate snack bars and restaurants under concession from the federal government, including Aramark at Mesa Verde and Xanterra at Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Park visitors are going to see really tasty choices that are healthy for them, with sustainable attributes, some regionality and a softer environmental footprint,” says Kurt Rausch, a National Park Service contracting specialist who helped develop the new guidelines.

At places like the cafeteria in Muir Woods National Monument, near San Francisco, nearly all the scones, sandwiches and snacks are produced within 100 miles of the redwood grove. National parks in Colorado are also joining the movement.

At Mesa Verde, chef Brian Puett works closely with local producers to offer regional and seasonal menu items that also help link the park with its cultural roots.

“We continually keep on the lookout for new local food and beverage vendors,” Puett says, naming more than 20 local companies that help provide the ingredients for tasty dishes like roasted vegetable salad and elk shepherd’s pie. Dried beans come from nearby Dove Creek, and even the flour for baking is locally sourced from the Cortez Mill.

It all comes in appetizers like a tri-colored corn tortilla with breaded turkey strips and prickly pear red pepper jam, or entrees like local trout dusted with pine nut crumbs harvested from the Four Corners’ ubiquitous piñon forests.

Local vintners often participate in wine dinners that focus on sustainability, and the Metate Room menu includes only Colorado-brewed beers, Puett says.

“We have always made a large effort to offer healthy and sustainable foods, and will continue to expand our efforts year over year,” he says.

Closer to Boulder, Rocky Mountain National Park has also been ahead of the curve — although the park has only one concession-operated food service outlet at the Trail Ridge Road store.

“It was one of the things that was asked for when they bid on a contract in 2007. They had to answer how they would provide a more healthy menu,” says John Hannon, who manages concession operations at the park.

According to Hannon, Xanterra has also switched all its utensils to corn-based biodegradables, and the company also recently renounced the use of plastic straws, which are a huge source of plastic waste in landfills, lakes and even the ocean. Straws are one of the top 10 marine debris items.

The focus on sustainable and local food has also benefited private businesses around the parks. One supplier was able to leverage connections with organic food producers to make additional sales outside the national park system, he explained.

Lu Harlow, director of Xanterra’s food service program at Yellowstone National Park, said her company has already been sourcing healthy local food for several years.

“We put a lot of our focus on supporting local economies,” Harlow says. “What can we do to help keep people in their family farms, finding food produced within 500 miles, grown without hormones and antibiotics?” Xanterra is also helping local producers gain the needed certification to become a supplier for national park restaurants, he adds.

“We’ll be forming more partner ships with local farmers, trying to keep it healthy and close and looking at the carbon footprint,” he says.

The agency collaborated with park food and beverage operators, concession industry leaders and health experts to develop the standards, which will be integrated into all new concessions contracts and applied on a voluntary basis to existing contracts.

“We intend to promote concessioners that are doing this and we’ll be able to monitor how we’re doing with our regular surveys to make sure they’re getting what they’re looking for in terms of healthy and sustainable food,” Rausch concludes.