WASHINGTON — The consumption of rubbery hot dogs and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches of indeterminate age is a time-honored rite of passage for generations of families making the trek to national parks around the country.
But the National Park Service is determined that the American experience now include the option of free-range chicken breast with sweet potato cake and fennel salad, or cumin-scented rockfish tacos, maybe topped off with a locally grown berry yogurt parfait, all washed down with shade-grown coffee picked by workers whose rights have been protected under fair-trade agreements.
The park service last week introduced new food standards that will eventually require concessionaires at all national parks, from the Statue of Liberty to Denali, to offer healthy food options, including fruits and vegetables, low-sodium and low-fat meals, reduced portion sizes, and non-sugary drinks.
The initiative also includes guidelines encouraging concessionaires to use local, sustainable foods when possible, including seafood certified as sustainable, meat without hormones and antibiotics, and coffee harvested using worker-friendly standards.
The effort, part of first lady Michelle Obama's healthy diet initiative, is based on the premise that a family journey to Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon should not compromise one's nutritional well-being.
"There is no reason to take a vacation from eating well when you visit a national park," park service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told an audience last week at a food kiosk near the Lincoln Memorial where the program was unveiled and free samples handed out.
Millions of tourist dollars and billions of calories are at stake. The park service sells meals to 23 million people each year, and the standards will apply to more than 250 food and beverage operations nationwide.
Wary of backlash from critics of "food police," administration officials are careful to note that hot dogs, pizza, soda and ice cream will still be available.
"This is about choices," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said last week. "There are still the other choices, if you want to buy them."
In a telephone interview from California, sustainable-foods pioneer Alice Waters applauded the park service initiative. "This is an enormous opportunity for the parks to set an example for the nation, because they are present in every state, in very visible locations," she said.
Waters said she had an "epiphany" about park service food a decade ago while visiting the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and stopping at a park eatery.
"The food was brought in from God knows where, maybe dropped from another planet," she recalled.
The Chez Panisse founder and her distraught traveling partners were regrouping outside when Waters realized they were standing in a patch of purslane. Waters fell to her knees, picked bunches of the edible leaf vegetable, washed them and whipped up a purslane salad. "I always travel with olive oil and salt," she noted.
Waters said the national parks can make similar use of their local food sources to connect visitors with the surrounding environment in meaningful ways.