Last week, newspapers reported that the National Park Service wasn’t doing away with summer staples such as hot dogs and ice cream, but was adding healthier options, such as lentil soup and fish tacos, apparently because Americans love having multiple choices to satisfy their individuality. The news sounded doused with corn syrup and wrapped in bacon, as if Americans wouldn’t visit their national treasures without a carrot, um, hot dog, dangling at the end of a walking stick.
This news comes after I ate a disgusting falafel sandwich a week ago at a state park. As someone who tries to eat healthy and avoid gluten and red meat, this was my only option on the menu that wasn’t fried or soaked in mayonnaise or grease. The American diet sucks, and as much as I try to pack our own food for road trips and airport delays, I still get stuck having to order what’s around. I wanted to feel relieved by NPS’s news, that it was a small, hesitant step in the right direction, but it reminded me of my former employer’s smoking policy; there was a big announcement that the organization had gone tobacco-free, yet plenty of employees continued to smoke on benches branded with no-smoking signs, often right in front of the executive offices. It really wasn’t a smoking ban. It was an announcement about a smoking ban that would never be enforced. What’s the point of a smoking ban that’s not enforced? What’s the point of offering lentil soup if you can get a pink sludge dog?
Maybe I need to not be so pessimistic, but I’ve been writing about health for 15 years, and during that time, America’s waistline got bigger. A third of us are clinically obese. There are fat kids huffing and puffing down the street holding 32-ounce sodas. In 1980, seven percent of kids ages six to 11 were fat; by 2010 that number had jumped to 18 percent. You don’t need the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to tell you that; just walk into any grocery store.
NPS serves more than 23 million people each year from its 250 food and beverage facilities located in 75 parks. That’s a lot of ice cream to scoop and pink sludge to grill. I’m encouraged that many of the parks will begin offering vegetarian options, but it doesn’t look like the hot dogs and junk will get phased out. I’m not anti-ice cream (but I am anti-pink sludge; we don’t eat red meat at home). However, travel is an opportunity to educate, and food is a big part of any travel experience. Our national parks educate tourists both from within the US and from abroad about the diverse North American landscape; we could send a similar message about food. What we serve makes an impression. Handing a foreign tourist a 16-ounce gulp because that’s the smallest beverage size available makes an impression.
I’m reading Michael Lanza’s “Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks.” The book is an interesting personal odyssey mixed with sobering facts about climate change and how the warming world is eroding our national parks. At the same time, a corrosive American diet is reducing the gains we’ve made in life expectancy. My daughter’s generation may not enjoy a longer lifespan due to the burden of obesity. Being fat is a serious public health problem. It’s not about not looking good or squeezing into a bathing suit. Obesity is about taxing your body’s biological and cellular processes to the maximum. Obesity is about hauling around what you don’t need. Obesity contributes to excessive healthcare costs.
I applaud NPS’s efforts, but wish the park service would adopt a more leadership role in this issue since enjoying the outdoors is linked with physical fitness. NPS can distinguish itself more from what’s being served at the typical American mall. NPS could stand to represent what’s worth preserving in America: the health of our land as well as ourselves.