State parks examine role in solving obesity

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Image: Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems

A step toward solving Michigan’s obesity problem may be coming to a state park near you.

The Michigan Environmental Council recently partnered with the Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan coalition to study how easy it is to get healthy foods in state parks and whether visitors want them.

“I think the data pretty clearly shows that there’s a lot of interest in having a greater range of choices at state parks and having some healthier food options,” said Kathryn Colasanti, academic specialist with the Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems and the principle investigator on the study. “I think from what we documented is that the current offerings of healthy choices are fairly limited, but there are a large number of people that expressed interest in specific products.

“We think that the data makes a strong argument towards expanding the range of healthy food options.”

Here’s what the study found:

  • Of the people surveyed, 33 percent said it was very important and 39 percent said that it was somewhat important that healthy food options were offered.
  • A little more than a third (36 percent) said they rarely purchase food at a state park, but 33.7 percent agreed they would buy more food if there were healthier options.
  • Such items as fresh fruit, granola or protein bars, juice, deli subs, sandwiches, and yogurt were highly ranked in what people would like to see sold in the parks.

Colasanti and her team looked at what was offered by food and beverage vending machines, concession stands and camp stores in 20 state parks. They found that soft drinks were  63 percent of the the less-healthy options in the machines. Water represented 41 percent of the healthy options available.


Image: Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems

The study developed partly out of Gov. Rick Snyder’s desire to reduce obesity in the state, said Andy McGlashen, the communications director of the Michigan Environmental Council. Conversations between interested parties began to focus on making state institutions a model for healthy behavior.

“We think if the administration and the state are making combating obesity a priority, then we think the state parks, a state facility, is a great place to set a positive example,” said McGlashen. “We would like to see the state parks become a model for local and regional parks. To see those parks become places where kids can get exercise and can also get a healthy snack, particularly in communities where access to nutritious food might be limited.”

The study identified food with very little nutritional value as whoa and nutritious items as go.  Those in between were called slow.

Food options in a vending machine at the Pinckney State Recreation Area. Image: Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems.

It turns out that 86 percent of the snacks at concession stands were whoa items and only 1 percent fell into the go catergory.

The study surveyed 10 to 20 campers at each park and about 1,800 people from the Department of Natural Resource’s list of those who had registered for a campsite or subscribed to get information about the state parks.

S’mores, hot dogs and ice cream are camping staples.

“We like to have those treats that are a part of camping,” McGlashen said. “But a lot of people go to the parks for healthy, outdoor activities, like hiking or mountain biking or something like that.

“I think the survey results show pretty clearly that a lot of these folks would rather refuel in some healthy foods, so we think it’s important to offer those in parks.”

McGlashen said when people visit state parks, there is a big opportunity to reinforce the Pure Michigan brand.

“We should send the message to visitors that Michigan cares about health and wellness, because clearly at the state level there’s been some priority placed on that,” he said.

And while the study has yet to be officially released, next steps are already in motion.

“Since that data was compiled, we’ve been in conversations with the Department of Natural Resources, and they’re already taking steps to modify their vendor contracts to require a larger percentage of healthy food choices,” said Colasanti. “So the next step is to really just continue that conversation with them and then see how well those changes work.”

Three of the state parks’ vendor contracts will expire this fall, said Jason Fleming, acting chief of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources’ resource management section. The department will require of new contractors that a minimum of 33 percent of the products available for sale follow the healthy food standards set by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity.

Nothing yet has been significantly implemented. Fleming said the department has looked into offering healthy food options from food trucks to farmer’s markets at the parks to increase healthy food access, but things are still in the works. The most important aspect is promoting a healthier lifestyle, he said.

“It all comes down to getting the kids out of doors and promoting outdoor recreation,” he said. “It’s about setting healthier standards overall.”

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