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More park visitors eating healthy, concessioner says

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Gerry Gabrys, CEO of Guest Services, Inc., speaks at Wednesday’s launch of the National Park Service’s new Healthy and Sustainable Food Program. Seated at left is Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)


More and more visitors to national parks are choosing healthy eating options, and the prices of those foods are becoming more competitive with traditional foods, Gerry Gabrys, chief executive officer of Guest Services, Inc., a major National Park Service concessioner told The Hagstrom Report in an interview on Wednesday.

Gabrys, who spoke for all concessioners at the ceremony launching the park service’s healthy food program, said that his company has been offering “FitPicks” options limited to 600 calories in National Park Service locations, including the Mall in Washington, for several years.

Two years ago, 15 percent of customers were choosing healthy options such as turkey wraps and apple wedges rather than hamburgers and French fries, but last year 20 percent were buying the healthy options and this year 30 percent are buying healthy food.

Gerry Gabrys

Gerry Gabrys
Although healthy food options have often been higher priced in the past, Gabrys said that many are now the same as for traditional park foods. Organic and sustainable foods have gone down in price in the last year, allowing the company to keep the prices for FitPick items competitive, he said.

“Providing additional choices is good for our customers and good for our business,” Gabrys said in his formal remarks on behalf of all the concessioners at the ceremony.

“All of us have seen a growing consumer demand for healthy food and we are committed to meeting the needs and desires of park visitors while keeping prices affordable. The new guidelines include many efforts already underway by the industry and reflect the close collaboration and positive partnership we enjoy with the National Park Service.”

Other concessioners present were Bruce Fears, president of Aramark Parks and Destinations; Rick Abramson, president of Delaware North Companies Parks and Resorts; and Jim McCaleb, vice president of Xanterra Parks and Resorts. All four companies brought chefs to provide cooking demonstrations.

In addition to providing more nutritious food options, the National Park Service is encouraging concessioners to incorporate sustainable food sourcing and service practices, the Interior Department said in a news release. The use of locally grown or raised items, when available, provides fresh food, reduces environmental impacts, and supports regional economies, the department noted.

Concessioners in parks like Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore are working with local vendors to supply a variety of seasonal ingredients, from fish, beef, bread, and tomatoes to dairy products, blueberries, cage-free eggs, and vegetables. Mount Rushmore’s “Lakota Popcorn” is from the harvest of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Interior said.

“When it comes to serving items like beef and vegetables, we are returning to our roots,” said Lu Harlow, director of food and beverage for Xanterra’s Yellowstone National Park operations, which served 1.8 million guests last year.

“Whenever possible and practical, we offer healthy foods that are good for our guests, our neighbors and our park. Because there are now more organic farms and local growers in the region, we have more choices to source close-to-the-ground and organic foods than ever before. It’s a win for our guests, a win for us and a win for our suppliers.”

Even before the Interior Department announced its new guidelines, Guest Services had a sustainability policy.

A Guest Services brochure says that the company serves only beef that comes from animals raises humanely and sustainably, pork from pigs raised on a 100 percent vegetarian diet in a low-stress environment without gestation crate confinement, and poultry that is raised cage-free.

Ground beef, the company adds, is “free of ammoniated additives,” which means none of is “pink slime.”

Guest Services says its seafood is sustainably raised following the guidelines of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service, the Moneterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, the Marine Stewardship Council and the Global Aquaculture Alliance.

Dairy products are produced without artificial bovine growth hormones, Guest Services says, and local food is preferred, using a 2008 farm bill definition of within 400 miles as local. Its organic products are USDA-certified, and its coffee comes from roasters who are members of the Rainforest Alliance and is fair-trade certified.