Food Fit For Parks – not to mention farming fit for parks Darwin Kelsey, Executive Director

Food fit for parks?!?  What, precisely, could that mean?  Well, it can’t mean any one thing precisely…or always, or invariably.  It depends.  And, it is actually a good example of the realities captured by the title of Dominic Muren’s 2009 book titled Green’s Not Black & White.  Muren explores the pros and cons of several so called green (i.e., environmentally friendly) practices related to issues like food, energy, transport – even shopping!  For food, he asks…Buy organic? Buy Local? Eat less meat? Less corn?  And, his answers always are framed as “Yes…But”.  Muren helps us understand the reasons we should think/reason in certain ways…except when circumstances suggest we might want to think/reason toward a different conclusion. 

“Food Fit For Parks” is part of a larger 2010 study titled Food For The Parks published by the Institute at the Golden Gate (a program of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy).  And, that study is itself part of a new and larger initiative having the same name – which “aims to help expand the availability of nutritious, local, organic, fresh food in parks nationwide by drawing connections between sustainable service and park values”.  Both the 2010 study and the larger initiative are a response to the emerging awareness that most of the food served in most parks bares little relationship to any of the historic, scenic, cultural, environmental, or public health “values” for which most parks were created.  But, getting “nutritious, local, organic, fresh” food into park food services/concessions faces all the same challenges as getting such food into school and hospital cafeterias, not to mention restaurants, and even homes.  And, such challenges/contexts always confront us with “yes… but” choices. 

Parks, of course, come in all shapes and sizes ranging from just a few acres to a few thousand square miles.  Some are located in or near dense urban populations, others are in remote wilderness settings – think Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore.  Some are close to abundant year round suppliers of all sorts of plant and animal food products.  Others have few, if any, large scale potential suppliers of fresh produce/dairy/eggs within a day or two’s drive.  Yet park visitors arrive expecting to stay a few hours, or a few days – often expecting to eat, onsite, in a variety of venues (grab-and-go, cafeterias, or elegant dining) at “reasonable” cost.  

Parks are almost always owned by “We the People” and are supposed to be managed in the public interest, for the common good (which means often contradictory things to occasionally like-minded people).  In practice, over the years, park owner/operators (i.e., government) have developed elaborate (legally defendable) procedures for selecting and working with private sector “service providers” – of canoes, horses, lodging, and even food.

The bottom line for food service concessioners in parks is – well, the bottom line.  They need to make a profit.  They wouldn’t be offering their “services” in park venues if those venues didn’t offer promising opportunities for profit: A few thousand dollars per year for small vendors in small parks, and a few million dollars for some vendors in a few parks.   All this new talk about “fresh, healthy, environmentally friendly, organic, local” is nice (maybe) but it isn’t an option if it isn’t profitable.  And, making a profit has always been challenging even without these new criteria.  Concessioners are usually required to keep their food prices in line with other local eateries.  And, when they serve fast food, it better be fast.  They better give visitors/customers what they are familiar/comfortable with – even if it is in a sure fire contributor to diabetes and heart attacks.  And, all this has generally meant that concessioners have felt pushed toward sourcing long-distance industrial food, preparing, and serving it using conventional industrial methods – all within the regulatory/inspection/safety constraints of the industrialized food system.

Park food service concessioners will change if/when sufficiently encouraged and enabled by new criteria/standards built into the competitive proposal process used to select and oversee them.  And, that will happen (slowly) as We the People push or follow park administrators in creating such criteria/standards.  The good news (for some of us) is that process, is in process.  On April 14, 2011 (for example) National Park Service Director, Jon Jarvis, announced a major new service-wide Healthy Food Strategy – to provide healthier food options for the 280,000,000+ annual National Park visitors.  His announcement came during a two day conference co-hosted by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.  Discussion there focused on how NPS can best encourage health and wellness initiatives in America’s local, state and National Parks – and how parks can promote healthy lifestyle changes.  Interesting. 

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening ten years ago.  It is a reflection of a very significant cultural change occurring across America today – what is being called the local food revolution.  A decade ago, it was also hard to imagine something else highlighted in Food For The Parks: The Countryside Initiative in Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP).  “Highlighted” is a key word here because the great bulk of that report is devoted to describing the challenges associated with finding food service concessioners willing and able to find, purchase, transport, prepare,  sell and serve fresh, nutritious, unfamiliar food originating outside of parks to sometimes impatient visitors staying in the parks.  Because of its unusual nature, CVNP doesn’t even have a park managed food service for general visitors.  What it does have, though,  is the best operating example of “farming fit for parks” in America – the purpose of which is to help tens of thousands of CVNP visitors each year better understand where food fit for parks actually comes from (and its consequences).

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