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    Greening the National Park
    Andrea Blum, Special to Beyond Organic
    May 3, 2006

    Recenly, I discovered some unexpected environmental leaders in my own backyard. In this case, it was a really big yard.

    The San Francisco Presidio is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), one of the largest urban national parks in the world. It’s also, I found out, on the cutting edge of the sustainable foods movement.

    Be Frank
    By Andrea Blum
    special to Beyond Organic

    In the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, in one of the nation’s national parks, I found a little pushcart baring the name Let’s Be Frank. It was parked outside a café called the Warming Hut — a appropriately-named refuge from the ever-lasting fog that continuously weaves it’s way into the San Francisco Bay (see Main story).

    As she flipped organic buns and turned grass-fed beef hotdogs on the grill, Sue Moore – a forty-something entrepreneur with the grand title of meat forager from the famed restaurant Chez Panisse – waxed poetically about Omega-3s and other benefits of eating meat from grass-fed cows (I know – it sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t. These days, most cows are confined to feedlots, eating large amounts of corn and never see a blade of grass in their lifetime.)

    A line formed and patrons loaded their hand held meal with grilled organic onions, ketchup and relish. The steam rose like the mist on the bay. The patrons, whether they understood the connection it or not, were contributing to a sustainable food system by eating a healthy alternative to what’s normally known as junk food.

    Brian O'Neill, the park’s superintendent, decided it was time for the national park system to extend its mission of preserving and protecting natural and cultural resources by improving the quality and sources of food they serve within its borders.

    It all started with a speech he heard by Columbia Foundation’s executive director Susan Clark, who told an audience of park officials she had never eaten a healthy meal in a national park in her lifetime. O'Neill was stunned. Then, he was inspired.

    “If we change the nature of what we are serving and educate the public at the same time, we can make a significant difference,” O'Neill said, referring to ubiquitous national health issues of obesity and diabetes.

    O'Neill intends for the GGNRA to be the flagship and model for the rest of the country, using the Park as a poster child of how to change the public perception of where and how our food is produced. With 16 food purveyors serving more than 250,000 meals every year, he’s got a large, captive audience. Visitors are coming to learn that if they can’t get a healthy, environmentally friendly, and affordable meal outside the Park, they’ll now be able to get one inside.

    To facilitate the process, O'Neill enlisted the support of sustainable food luminary Larry Bain. As director of the San Francisco based non-profit Nextcourse (and former Director of Operations of San Francisco’s well-known restaurants Acme Chophouse and Jardiniere), Bain helps change the way large institutions think and deal with food and nutrition.

    Bain and O'Neill pulled together key leaders in the culinary, educational and non-profit community organizations to create new opportunities for farmers and ranchers within the GGNRA to work with cafés and restaurants in the Park. As obvious as it might sound to source food from within the Park for Park visitors, it had never been done previously.

    “We have to work on making the park an advocate for good food and good farming,” said Bain referring to the loss of farmland to development. “It improves the quality of our national parks here and gives the opportunity to create a massive impact on California farmlands.”

    The program is gaining momentum with the other national parks within the Western Region. In cooperation Ruth Coleman, Director of the California State Park system, O'Neill is leading the effort to develop the criteria to have sustainably raised, produced and prepared food in the nation’s parks into policy.

    Already Yellowstone, the nation’s first National Park, uses more eco-friendly and organic options on their menus. Concessionaires like Delaware North in Yosemite make sure at their contractors offer least two organic options. The executive chef at the Yosemite Lodge uses as many local products as he can, and would never offer fish that’s deemed endangered or unsustainably caught.

    Soon, says O'Neill, visitors might be hard pressed to find a Coke with high fructose corn syrup or potato chips fried in trans fat oils on the menu. “But at least you might find a healthier alternative,” he suggested.

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