Eating healthy on vacation? Michigan state parks don’t provide many options

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Line of visitors at Silver Lake State Park in front of concession stand. Image: Silver Lake Sand Dunes Area Chamber of Commerce.

By Indri Maulidar

Every summer, Elin Triwibowo is in distress.

Her two daughters want to hike or swim. But Triwibowo is sick of the food available when they vacation at state parks.

She tries to implement clean eating throughout her family’s diet, which means no processed food. But vacations ruin that plan.

“If I don’t prepare meals from home, it’s impossible to eat good and healthy on our trip,” said Triwobowo, of Lansing.

Last summer, the family went to the beach in Holland State Park. Even though she had brought food from home, her daughters insisted on getting chips and hot dogs from concession stands, she said. She couldn’t resist because after all, they were on vacation.

“I hope they sell all yogurt and nothing else,” she said, laughing.

Holland State Park was one of 19 state parks in Michigan that a 2014 survey discovered provided almost no healthy food options to visitors. The Michigan State University study showed that around 80 percent of the food sold in the Holland State Park concession was categorized as “Whoa.” Candies, chips, donuts and muffins fall into this category reserved for foods that should only be eaten once in a while.

There’s also “Go” food, which means healthy meals and snacks that can be eaten almost anytime, like whole-grain cereal bars and fruit cups. The other category is “Slow,” snacks like graham crackers, pretzels, jerky and baked chips, which means food that can be eaten sometimes.

Triwibowo agrees about the food at Holland State Park. “The last time I was there, they sell the usual stuff—chips, hot dogs.”

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

The Michigan Environmental Council and several other organizations involved in the Healthy Kids Healthy Michigan campaign pushed the Department of Natural Resources to provide healthy foods in concession stands or vending machines in state parks in 2014.

Next year, they plan to campaign for this agenda again.

Around 86 percent of concession stands in 19 state parks sold Whoa foods, according to the same 2014 study. In the beverage category, 94 percent of the vending machines sold soda, flavored drinks, and non-diet drinks.

Interactive graphic: Explore the food offered at Michigan state parks.

“State parks are managed by our tax dollar. So, we want the food that sold there to be beneficial to our health,” said Tina Reynolds, program director at Michigan Environmental Council.

Besides, she said, it’s bizarre not to provide healthy food. Visitors go to state parks for trail and hiking for their health, yet the DNR gives them unhealthy food instead.

Her group and Healthy Kids Healthy Michigan will pursue the Department of Natural Resources to better the contract with vendors of the concessions and vending machines, Reynolds said.

“It means that to bid a project on state parks, DNR should require these vendors to have a certain percent of the food to be healthy,” she said.

Some progress has been made. The Michigan DNR is opening new bids in 2020 for concession and beverages vendors at some state parks. The bid packages for concessions at Warren Dunes State Park, for example, required the bidder to provide variety of healthy foods including fresh fruits, vegetables and items with lower sodium, sugar and fat content.

The bidders were also encouraged, but not required, to lower prices for healthier options, listing calorie counts, or putting healthy options in prime sale areas.

There are 80 concession stands operating in state park, according to the Michigan DNR.

“We can’t push the bidder to have certain amount of healthy food percentage, because they need to sell certain commodities. But we required them to at least sell them as another option,” said Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation division.

Meanwhile, the rate of child obesity in the state is concerning, the MEC said.

Michigan ranks 14th among the 50 states in obesity for ages 10 to 17, according to a 2017 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Around 33.1 percent of children are obese or overweight compared to the 30.7 percent national average. In 2011, the number was 17.1 percent in Michigan.

It’s not like visitors to state parks don’t want to eat well. Even while on vacation, they think that having access to healthy food is a good idea.

Researchers for the 2014 study interviewed around 20 campers at each park. They also surveyed about 1,800 people from the DNR’s list of those who subscribed to get information about the state parks.

About 72 percent said it was important that healthy food options were offered at the state parks’ concession or vending machine. More than a third of visitors said they rarely purchase food at a state park, but 33.7 percent agreed they would buy more food if there were healthier options.

The lead researcher, Kathryn Colasanti, said that she did not have the chance to renew the 2014 study. But, she thinks that the conditions could have improved.

Now she would like to look into food at municipal parks.

“With state parks, the context is a bit different because people are on vacation, so they don’t really think of eating healthy,” Colasanti said. “But municipal parks are the spaces where they are interacting on a more frequent basis.”

The number of healthy foods in municipal parks likely would not be that different than in state parks, she said.

But the state should provide healthy eating options to visitors, she said

“I think because of these are state facilities, it should be their responsibility to provide a range of food available.”

A 2012 study published in the journal of Childhood Obesity reported that state parks have an important role in preventing obesity among children and adults by providing physical activities and healthy food. Some parks across the country have, at least, encouraged vendors to provide healthy options at their concession and vending machines, according to the study.

For Elin Triwibowo, any improvement could be good news.

For winter break, the family is planning to visit Fort Custer for winter camping.

“The kids are excited, “she said. “We love nature and we wanted to fully love it by eating good food.”

5 thoughts on “Eating healthy on vacation? Michigan state parks don’t provide many options

  1. I am a state park concessionaire. I operate a camp office and a snack food stand.

    I can tell you why you don’t see very many healthy options. The customers don’t want them. We’ve been asked by the MDNR to provide “healthy options”, which we have. However, healthy options are routinely passed over for “junk food”. We’ve offered yogurt, fruit snacks, fruit juice, granola bars, apples, bananas, salads…the vast majority is composted or pitched. Why? Because the customer does not buy it. I hear it all summer long “we are on vacation, we want junk food”. The vast majority of our bananas ended up on banana splits or composted. They don’t want orange juice or milk, they want iced coffee and monsters.

    Something the author did not do, nor, the researcher, is asking the customers coming in and out of the concession building what they want to eat. We survey our camp office customers and our concession customers on food items they’d like to see. They want french fries, hamburgers, all kinds of junk food. Those asking for “healthy options” are a tiny minority.

  2. I’m failing to see how people not being able to say no to their children and providing them with healthy food on their own falls on the shoulders of the DNR. This is like this everywhere you go. Stop relying on the government to care for you and yours, take responsibility for yourself. There’s a town somewhere outside everyone of these places. Bring it in yourself and take it back out. Also state parks are self funded Tina, not your tax dollars. Lots of talk of responsibility in this article, try being responsible for yourself.

  3. No surprise there. Its all about maximizing profit margins and long shelf life. If they let the free market operate with a few vendors, a true picture or balance would surface of what the people want.

  4. The trend toward unhealthy food availability appears to also exist at other state facilities. Consider the harbor facilities around our state’s coastline. How many dining facilities exist? (Not a rhetorical question, as I don’t actually know.) Most that I have visited have no dining facilities near the docks, whether on private or public spaces.

    I suspect that there has been a push, by some in the DNR or whomever oversees their operations, to monetize their operations with concession agreements rather than working to serve the public.

    Consider Presque Isle Harbor, in northeast Lower Michigan: That harbor facility – one of the most beautiful on the Great Lakes – had a thriving, seasonal, full-service restaurant for over three decades. DNR (or whomever pulls their strings) then decided to change their agreement with the restaurant, imposing a 10%-of-gross-sales “concession” fee, rather than the lease agreement that had served everyone well for decades.

    Anyone who knows anything about the restaurant business will be aware that they typically operate with a 3 to 5% profit margin, so ten percent of gross sales is a non-starter, especially for a facility that can only be open in summer months. (The state, which owns the building, never made any improvements that could allow year-round operation.) As a result of the new concession agreement imposed by the state, the restaurant had to close its operations and lay off all of its staff, many of whom had been worked there for decades.

    Rhetoric from the DNR keeps suggesting that they have investors lined up to take over. Two years later however the building still lies vacant, the state has realized NO revenue from its facility, and its interior and equipment were severely damaged from lack of proper maintenance.

    Sadly, many boaters now bypass Presque Isle Harbor due to its lack of services and the local community lost a significant part of its identity.

    Anyway, back to the food: Not only did the restaurant serve the boating community, it was an excellent gathering place for the local community as well. Clearly the State of Michigan, and its DNR, could do a much better job of supporting the communities around their facilities if the would promote quality food services that benefit the entire communities that they serve.

    It shouldn’t all be about generating a fast buck.

  5. Well it is certainly a noble idea to provide healthier snacks, but I certainly hope that whatever concessionaire gets the vending contracts doesn’t end up having to throw a lot of those healthy snacks away as “expired”.

    There is something driving snack sales, that we all know as Supply & Demand. Hopefully having the healthy items that visible will help, but time will tell.

    Have a great summer everyone!

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