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Food for the Parks: Local Food in America’s National Parks

A recent initiative within the National Park Service seeks to bring its food offerings in line with its mission of environmental preservation. The Institute at Golden Gate notes while “publicly protected lands provide visitors with a connection to places and their natural environment, history and culture,” it is often the case that “the quality and type of food served does not contribute to a park’s environmental mission or unique sense of place.”  With an estimated 286 million people visiting national parks each year, the parks have the ability “to serve as powerful symbolic and economic drivers of the national movement toward healthier and more sustainably produced food.”

The Institute at Golden Gate’s report entitled Food For the Parks: Case Studies of Sustainable Food in America’s Most Treasured Places highlights four national parks and the advances each of those parks has made to increase local, sustainable, and healthy food.  Two of the parks are located in California:  Muir Woods National Monument in Golden Gate National Parks and Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds.  The other two case studies are in Yellowstone National Park (northwest Wyoming and southwest Montana) and Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota). The report also highlights “other notable park sustainable food activities” that cover a diverse range of locations within the United States.  Although each of the sites faces different challenges, each has made significant progress in accomplishing the goal of improving the food served on its premises.

The initiative has had a number of positive impacts in addition to improving the quality of food served at the parks.  Sourcing produce and other food items locally provides economic development for local businesses, the parks can use the initiative as educational material for visitors, and packaging and waste generation are better managed and often significantly reduced.

Some highlights of the report include:

Muir Woods Café:  

The Café creates seasonal menus to maximize the use of local food.  According to the report, “all fruits and vegetables are organically produced, and in 2009 87 percent of produce was sourced within 30 miles of the park.”  The Café has partnered with Rustic Bakery, a local bakery that uses only organic and local ingredients and prepares all the food by hand.  The business Rustic Bakery gets from the national park and one other customer has allowed the Rustic Bakery to double its production capacity.

Asilomar State Beach Crocker Dining Hall:

The retail shop at Asilomar serves tea and Fair Trade, shade-grown coffee, more than half of which is organic.  Crocker Dining Hall serves fresh seafood that is on the Seafood Watch green list, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables, and California cheese and wine.  The concessioner, Aramark, is working to make all of its to-go packaging compostable.  Currently, Aramark has partnered with Monterey Regional Waste to compost food waste and compostable packaging, which is then sold to farmers.

Yellowstone Lodges:

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Yellowstone Lodges’ concessioner, made a company-wide sustainability goal to spend 50 percent of all food expenditures on “sustainable food” by 2015.  For Xanterra, “sustainable” food and ingredients mean: “purchased from USDA-certified organic producers, produced within a 500-mile radius of the park, Fair Trade certified, or on the green list of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).”  Currently, under this definition, 32 percent of Yellowstone’s food and beverage offerings are sustainable.  The use of local sourcing has reduced transportation costs for Xanterra.  Yellowstone offers local products like beef, potatoes, produce, bread, dairy products and unique local products such as huckleberries, game, and MSC-certified fish including salmon.

In terms of energy and waste management, Xanterra diverts its used cooking oil (10,000 gallons per year) to heat its hotel facilities.  This project alone reduces the amount of diesel fuel used and keeps 200,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from being admitted to the atmosphere.  Xanterra also owns and operates a composting facility on site that turned 2.2 million pounds of waste into marketable compost.

Mount Rushmore Carvers Café:

Although it is more of a challenge to source local products from South Dakota, Xanterra has made significant progress in taking advantage of the products that are produced locally.  Carvers Café purchases hormone-free, grass-fed bison from a local rancher for burgers, chili, and stew.  Visitors can purchase food items that are typical of the Northern Plains region, including “gourmet Lakota Popcorn from the harvest of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, bison, antelope, elk, or venison sausage, Railroad Bill’s Cashew Crunch, and Sioux Fry Bread mix that visitors can bake at home.”  Because of a lack of locally sourced produce, Xanterra planted a garden in a nearby town to provide for some of its fresh produce needs and built a greenhouse on top of the café to grow spinach and other items year-round.

The Food for the Parks report provides an interesting look at the benefits and challenges of increasing local, sustainable, and healthy food options at the National Parks.  The four case studies “highlighted in this report collectively hosted 14.8 million visitors and represent $116.6 million in annual revenues.  Committing just 10 percent of this purchasing power toward sustainably produced foods creates a multi-million dollar driver for local and organic businesses that are producing food using environmentally responsible methods.”

The report concludes by noting that part of the National Park Service’s mission is to preserve the scenery and natural environment so that future generations can enjoy those unimpaired protected spaces.  “At a time when climate change threatens scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife in parks, sustainable food sourcing in park concessions is both possible and necessary to ensure that future generations will have the chance to enjoy them.”


Alli Condra is pursuing her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas, and is the recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship.

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