Celebrating 100 Years of the National Park Service: Exploring Food & Sustainability in the Grand Canyon
Today the National Park Service turns 100 years old!
Signed into law and created on August 25, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, the National Park Service (NPS) is charged with the lofty goal of preserving both the ecological health and historical aspects of its parks while also making them accessible to the public. Responsible for the protection and maintenance of incredible sites such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Hawaii’s volcanoes, Death Valley, Cape Cod, the rainforest in Puerto Rico, and many more phenomenal natural locations, the NPS has a large stake in the environmental conservation for future generations to come.
On a recent camping trip to the Grand Canyon, I had the wonderful opportunity to grab an up-close look at some of the sustainability measures the NPS is taking to protect natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, as well as experience other food and nutrition related aspects of the journey. Healthy food and environmental preservation are intimately connected, and this profound relationship has not been lost on the NPS.
What does preserving our environment have in common with food and nutrition? In short, pretty much everything.
The direct link between the preservation of our environment and the preservation of a safe and healthy food system (and, therefore, also our self-preservation) can be exemplified by a recent health publication from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Every 5 years, the USDA is charged with the responsibility of updating the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, where an advisory committee of food and health experts convenes and proposes updates to the existing set of national nutrition guidelines. These guidelines directly influence the basis for federal nutrition programs and policies, which go on to influence nutrition services and education nationwide.
Last year, for the first time ever, the updates suggested by the expert advisory board included the recommendation that sustainability be incorporated into our national guidelines for a healthier diet. They offered several reasons for this suggestion: “A sustainable diet ensures [food security] for both the current population and future generations… a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet… Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use [than a plant-based diet].” Plant-based diets encourage eating lower on the food chain, which is correlated with overall less energy inputs and therefore increased sustainability. The current Standard American Diet (or SAD, a very appropriately acronym) is full of energy-intensive and unhealthy foods found high on the food chain, such as meat like beef and pork products. For example, 1 pound of beef requires a whopping 1,847 gallons of water to be produced. On the other hand, 1 pound of broccoli sucks up a scant 34 gallons of water.
But wait, there’s more – here the advisory committee really sinks their teeth in: “The environmental impact of food production is considerable and if natural resources such as land, water, and energy are not conserved and managed optimally, they will be strained and potentially lost. The global production of food is responsible for 80 percent of deforestation, more than 70 percent of fresh water use, and up to 30 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions. It also is the largest cause of species biodiversity loss. The capacity to produce adequate food in the future is constrained by land use, declining soil fertility, unsustainable water use, and over-fishing of the marine environment. Climate change, shifts in population dietary patterns and demand for food products, energy costs, and population growth will continue to put additional pressures on available natural resources.”
Simply put, what you eat every day deeply affects the health of our shared global environment. And the above analysis only begins to skim the surface. For additional information.
Now that we’ve established how intimately diet and sustainability are related, let’s get into the good stuff – how does one eat while camping in the gorgeous Grand Canyon, and how does the NPS promote more sustainable decisions among their visitors?
The General Store: Composting & Practicing Zero Waste
Let’s start with the general store. If my childhood camping memories serve, no campgrounds are totally complete without a good ole general store. The cramped general stores of my yesteryear had dingy once white now permanently dirtied linoleum floors, floodlight-like florescent overheads, and sold just the bare necessities like firewood, lighter fluid, marshmallows and graham crackers, probably beer and coffee served in styrofoam, and not much more other than overpriced cheesy t-shirts and mass produced earrings. Thankfully the general store equivalent at the Grand Canyon was a step up, likely due to the sheer popularity of the Grand Canyon.
The Canyon Village Market featured a decent array of goodies your average SAD customer would likely shy away from – like fresh produce, veggie burgers, yogurt – yet there was something for everyone to eat here. Almost akin to a regular (decent) grocery store, my only complaints about this general store are also applicable to the average grocery store: no bulk section, little to no higher qualities of eggs, dairy, or meat offered, lacking on the fresh fruit in these summer months, etc.
What I absolutely did love at the Canyon Village Market was the ability to compost and recycle. Here I am composting a bag of our leftover food scraps.
In my right hand you can see the ceramic coffee mug I brought from home. Each day we were camping at the Grand Canyon, I made my way down to the Market and bought a coffee. I asked for it to be served in my ceramic mug, instead of using one of their disposable (albeit compostable!) single-use coffee cups. Each day when I made this request the employees were more than happy to fill my own mug with their piping hot juju juices, and even poured me some milk from the gallon in their fridge so I wouldn’t have to use those nasty tiny plastic single serving creamer cups - whether flavored or not, those things are simply cringe worthy. The staff at the Market were happy to put in a little bit of extra work so that I didn’t have to create unnecessary trash before breakfast was even over, and one staff member even appreciated my efforts so much that one morning my coffee was on the house! While I don’t practice a zero waste lifestyle now (#futuregoals), whenever possible I do what I can.
Finally, I was ecstatic to see that the Market had no plastic bags, and instead offered only paper and reusable bags. Possibly a pain to those unprepared, but no sweat for those of us that always keep an extra reusable bag or two in our backpack. One cashier told me that the NPS has strict standards that contracted companies (such as the Market) must meet, implying that the no plastic bags rule was doled out direct from NPS. The same cashier also told me that there are plans to begin phasing out the paper bags as well, and only offer reusables. Cheers to that!
As with any American grocery store, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to sustainability. However, the NPS appears to be collaborating to take sizable steps in the right direction.
Cooking on a Campfire
I was looking forward to cooking on a real fire. Too much Chef’s Table I suppose, really channeling my inner Francis Mallmann here. Nothing wakes you up quite like the chore of building a fire, the anguish when your fire goes out for seemingly no reason (“Where’d the lighter fluid go??”), and finally the pleasing snap and crackle of well burning logs.
The most pleasant aspect to cooking with a campfire is the light smokey taste added to all your food, yum!
Hands down the biggest surprise to me with cooking with a true fire is how low heat it can be. A modest-sized fire is about equivalent to cooking on low to medium-low heat. Unless you’re planning on burning up many logs at once and building up a roaring fire, campfire cooking falls more into the realm of slow cooking, with low heat. To get a high heat on a campfire requires some extra work, and some extra wood.
The campgrounds we stayed in did not allow campers to collect their own firewood, as I suspect is the standard across most campgrounds, and instead firewood had to be purchased from the Market which proved to be rather expensive, about $7 for a bundle of wood. The grounds requested that all fires be kept small, and the price encouraged us to oblige. Again, promoting visitors to build only small fires is in line with the goal of more sustainable national parks.
Plants: Native, Edible, and Medicinal
As a native to the Southwest myself, Fernbush was surprisingly new to me. As a fervent enthusiast of all things native, wild, and local, how could I resist such a sign? Of course I harvested some leaves, a very easy task with this plant growing all over the place, and stuffed them in my pocket to make tea later that night.
The tea ended up being rather bitter, with a faint flavor of lemongrass tea. Maybe not my top pick for a relaxing tea, but if I were suffering from a stomachache I would happily gulp some down, as the signage proposes.
Kudos to the NPS (or whomever is responsible) for even posting signage about the medicinal benefits of this native bush. An understanding and appreciation for the natural world is a key component of pursuing a sustainable future.
While it’s wonderful to be able to harvest and consume native food sources as a tourist, this simple task can quickly turn dangerous for the novice. I became very interested in trying some “Mormon tea” after I overheard a tour guide point it out as a plant commonly made into tea by Mormons. I learned that at least some Mormons choose not to consume caffeine for religious reasons, and that this plant contains a stimulant similar to caffeine but not caffeine, thus becoming a beverage that gives Mormons that extra boost of energy in the morning without breaking their religious traditions.
I had already harvested leaves and they were sitting in my pocket when I chanced into a conversation with a native Navajo man. While I’m not sure if he was giving me general advice or advice particular to Mormon tea, he suggested I don’t consume tea made from the leaves I harvested unless I was completely sure I had harvested the correct plant. Of course I wasn’t sure at all. He suggested I toss the leaves and not make the tea, as some medicinal plants look very similar to harmful or poisonous plants.
Anyways, according to another Navajo source, when properly identified Mormon tea is reportedly helpful in dealing with mild kidney inflammation, seasonal allergies, and asthma.
Ah, juniper. No discussion of edible Southwestern native plants would be complete with juniper. Juniper grows everywhere and its berries are just as easily found, ready to be harvested. I haven’t used juniper extensively in my kitchen, however I have used whole dried berries in homemade sauerkraut, which gave my kraut a fresher yet more complex flavor. The berries are also used to flavor gin.
While I haven’t experimented with this myself, juniper reportedly can be used to alleviate heartburn, bloating, stomachaches, urinary tract infections, kidney and bladder stones, and more.
This land-growing version of “tuna”, as the Mexicans call it, is actually the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. As with any fruits, after the plant’s flowers are pollinated, these “pears” or “tunas” swell out from the plant with seeds inside. The seeds are rather large and make for some slow eating. I’ve only had the pleasure of eating tuna once, and let’s just say it was curious enough of an experience for me to try it again.
I didn’t harvest or eat any tuna this trip, primarily due to the crazy, innumerable, and hair-thin thorns found on the prickly pear cactus.
Check out the work involved to eat some prickly pear:
Water! An important topic always, but in the Southwest water becomes a topic of utmost concern. Consider that up until recently it was illegal to collect rainwater that fell on to your own property in Colorado. While there are wetter and drier areas, the Southwest is essential a desert.
Thankfully, the NPS had us covered. Around the Grand Canyon, there are several natural water springs. These natural springs had been tapped into all around the campgrounds and also the more touristy areas.
Awesome stations encouraging refilling a reusable water bottle instead of throwing away single use plastic water bottles:
And here’s the natural spring spigot at the campgrounds. So fresh and so clean.
Finally, I of course was in love with using reclaimed water in the toilets, instead of wasting perfectly potable water on poop.
After poking around one of the visitors centers, I found this little gem on a floor map of the history of the National Park Service:
… and I became hopeful. Here’s to a legacy of environmental preservation by those who came before us, and may we go into the future with the same deep reverence, respect, and love for our common mother. While ecosystems around the globe will undoubtedly continue to change with or without our influence, it is high time that we truly consider the impact of our every day actions – such as what we choose to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – on the one and only world that we have.
Nearby hung this banner:
Couldn’t say it better myself! My trip to the Grand Canyon has proved to be deeply spiritual and breathtaking – standing at her edge you get a sense of how delicate and sacred life truly is. I’m so thankful to the National Park Service for their incredible work preserving such awe-inspiring sites such as the Grand Canyon. Suffice to say that I sure did #findmypark in celebration of 100 years of the National Park Service.
I leave you with a few of my favorite snapshots:
More about the author:
Caylee Clay, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in autoimmune conditions. As a graduate of New York University and Hunter College, Caylee has studied under leaders in the health and nutrition world, including completing an independent study and graduate course with Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics. Caylee has five years experience in community nutrition, working with a wide variety of patients including infants and young children, HIV+ adults, school aged children, expecting and new mothers, and several minority communities. To contact for consulting and counseling, please use the "Contact" link at the top of the page.
eat yer veggies
We’re two Registered Dietitian Nutritionists of kindred spirit, living and working in New York City. We believe that healthy eating and sustainability go hand-in-hand — every bite you take has the power to improve both the world and your health!