HCPH has collaborated with Three Rivers from the beginning of this project. Initial interest in working on healthier concessions came from Three Rivers and HCPH's participation in the Nutrition, Obesity, & Physical Activity workgroup of the Community Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP), a collaborative body that consists of HCPH and 40+ community organizations such as clinics, hospitals, health plans, schools, and social service agencies.
The goal of this initiative is to increase the availability of healthy food and beverages at Three Rivers cafés and concessions. The objectives of this initiative are to adopt and implement healthy nutrition standards for Three Rivers, and ensure that 50 percent of food and 50 percent of beverages offered to the public meet the Three Rivers nutrition standards.
The main steps taken by HCPH and Three Rivers to implement this initiative include:
Creating Three Rivers nutrition standards. We identified the need for a uniform nutrition standard to be applied across the Three Rivers park system. HCPH staff, in conjunction with executive park management, reviewed several best practice nutrition standards: the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA All Foods Sold in Schools” Smart Snacks in Schools standards, and National Recreation and Park Association Commit to Health, Healthy Eating and Physical Activity (HEPA). The Three Rivers nutrition standards were a composite of these nutrition standards to address its youth and adult visitors. The standards require that foods and beverages in Three Rivers cafes and concessions meet specific thresholds for calories, total fat, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. In addition to specific nutrient thresholds, the standards direct Three Rivers food venues to provide at least one fruit or non-fried vegetable option, and to serve whole grain-rich products (e.g., whole wheat bread, popcorn, oatmeal). The nutrition standards dictate that at least 50 percent of foods and 50 percent of beverages meet the prescribed nutrition criteria.
Conducting food and beverage inventories of items offered in each of the concessions. Two HCPH staff dietitians visited each venue and conducted a visual inventory of products as well as reviewed a report of foods and beverages purchased and sold for the previous year. In-depth interviews were held with staff to determine key characteristics of customers, solicit staff input, and gather sales data.
Conducting a nutrient analysis of all prepared and packaged products to determine compliance with the adopted nutrition standards. We used nutrition analysis software to calculate the nutrient and calorie content of each food and beverage. Portion size of made from scratch” foods as well as portioned semi-prepped foods, such as French fries, were often double that of a standard portion. Very few foods or beverages offered for sale met the nutrition standard. As a result, no venues in the baseline review met the healthy food threshold, and only two met the threshold for healthy beverages.
Identifying acceptable alternatives and/or developing recipe modifications for nutrient- poor foods and beverages. HCPH staff dietitians conducted extensive research to identify healthier prepackaged alternatives, including meeting with food manufacturers and distributors and searching online databases. This allowed for the development of a list of prepackaged foods that met the standards, which we distributed to all park managers and staff. This reference list reduced the amount of park staff time spent on researching healthier products to order and reduced the margin of error, as well as increased the consistency of healthier products available to park visitors. Staff dietitians worked with park staff to modify made from scratch” recipes by substituting healthier ingredients lower in fat, sugar, and sodium. Many modifications involved reducing portion sizes, so the product would be closer to standard portion sizes.
Conducting taste test events of healthier foods and beverages for staff buy-in. HCPH staff partnered with several food and beverage distributors to provide healthier products for two taste tests for park staff. Feedback was gathered from staff on the acceptability of each product, as well as their opinions about customer purchasing behavior.
Negotiating with food and beverage distributors to procure desired healthier alternatives. Several meetings and conference calls were held with distributors to source healthier foods for individual parks.
Working with park district food and beverage contract managers to insert language around healthier options into request for proposals (RFPs) and vendor contracts.
Educating park staff on product placement techniques to increase customer-purchasing behavior of healthier products. Information on product placement was discussed with park staff and presented at several park manager meetings.
Developing a marketing plan in conjunction with park staff to promote the availability of healthier foods and beverages.
Conducting surveys to solicit customer feedback regarding satisfaction with healthier concession items.
Three Rivers leadership expects all district parks that have concessions to participate in this initiative. However, each park within the park system has its own food service system and manager and operates independently (initially with little coordination with other parks). This has required HCPH staff to work with each park separately. While the goal is to have all district parks conform to the Three Rivers nutrition standards, due to the seasonal nature of the parks and seasonal and limited park staff, it has taken and will continue to take several years before all sites are in compliance and operating cohesively.
A pilot of this initiative started in 2015 with one Three Rivers park and has since expanded to 20 parks in the district. HCPH has also collaborated with Three Rivers on engaging park visitors via a concessions customer survey at two parks in 2017 and 2018. In addition, HCPH worked with several park food vendors to source healthier options and encourage relationships between sales representatives and park managers. HCPH also provided specific language around healthy concessions for Three Rivers to use in their RFPs and contracts for their food and beverage vendors.
Throughout this project, HCPH has met regularly with park managers both individually and at managers meetings to provide updates, gather input, answer questions, and provide technical assistance. In addition, HCPH has met with several food vendors that supply Three Rivers products to explain this initiative and further the relationship between their sales staff and park managers. As an example, HCPH coordinated taste tests for managers at two meetings where they could try out products that meet their nutrition standards. Sales representatives for a food distributor and a food manufacturer were also present at these meetings. In 2017 and 2018, HCPH assisted two parks in creating and administering customer satisfaction surveys to gauge park visitor buy-in and interest, as well as promote healthier concessions. As part of these surveys, park concessions customers gave their input on the kinds of healthier options that they would like to have available in the Three Rivers parks.
Costs associated with this project include staff time and equipment costs. An estimate of staff time spent on this project is roughly 0.1 FTE per year, at a cost of approximately $17,800 per year (salary and benefits). HCPH has also supported Three Rivers with small equipment costs related to promotion and marketing of healthy foods, averaging about $1,000 per year. These expenses are funded by a grant that HCPH received from the Minnesota Department of Health.
The goal of this initiative is to increase the availability of healthy foods and beverages at Three Rivers cafés and concessions. The objectives of this initiative are to adopt and implement healthy nutrition standards for Three Rivers, and to ensure that 50 percent of food and 50 percent of beverages offered to park visitors meet the Three Rivers nutrition standards.
As a result of this initiative, Three Rivers adopted nutrition standards for the first time in its history in 2015, and embedded the nutrition standards in language used in their RFPs and contracts for several of their food and beverage vendors. The nutrition standards require that foods and beverages in Three Rivers cafes and concessions meet specific thresholds for calories, total fat, saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium. In addition, the nutrition standards direct Three Rivers concessions to provide at least one fruit or non-fried vegetable option, and to serve whole grain-rich products (e.g., whole wheat bread, popcorn, oatmeal).
In 2015, HCPH conducted baseline food and beverage inventories at 17 park sites; at that time, no sites met the 50 percent standard for food, and only two met the 50 percent standard for beverages. In 2017, when 11 parks were re-inventoried, over half (6) met the 50 percent standard for both food and beverages, and an additional two parks met the 50 percent standard for beverages. HCPH staff is currently working with Three Rivers staff to re-inventory sites for 2018.
HCPH conducted food and beverage inventories of items offered in each of the venues. Two HCPH staff dietitians visited each venue and conducted a visual inventory of products as well as reviewed a report of foods and beverages purchased and sold for the previous year. In-depth interviews were held with staff to determine key characteristics of each venues' customers, solicit staff's opinions on the project, and gather sales data. HCPH staff then used the nutrient database NutritionistPro, as well as nutrition information available online, and from vendors and food manufacturers, to analyze whether these foods and beverages meet the Three Rivers nutrition standards.
After healthier food and beverage changes were made at park concessions, HCPH created visitor surveys to determine customer satisfaction with the concessions changes. Closed and open-ended questions were created for the surveys, with input from park managers. Park concessions staff administered the paper surveys to adult park visitors over a period of four to six days. HCPH staff then compiled the results, analyzed the data, and discussed the results with park managers and administrators.
Results of the customer surveys show that the majority of respondents agree that a variety of healthy options are available at the parks, the food is a good value, they would buy more food at the parks if the parks continued to offer healthier options, and that they are satisfied with food offered at the parks. Visitors who completed the surveys also offered numerous suggestions for additional healthier options that they would like to see available in the park concessions.
As a result of collaborating on this initiative, Three Rivers parks added a number of new options that meet their nutrition standards, including smaller whole grain tortillas, 100 percent juice slushies, fresh fruit, and baked chips. One park switched to all non-sugar sweetened beverages. Other parks switched to smaller hot dogs to decrease the calories, sodium, and saturated fat. Some parks also created healthier hot dog specials, which included water, juice, or diet pop, as well as baked chips or fruit, instead of regular pop and full-fat chips as sides.
The nutrition analysis of Three Rivers made from scratch” foods as well as portioned semi-prepped foods prompted changes. Portion size of foods found to be more than a standard serving were decreased to be in line with USDA MyPlate suggestions, which lowered calorie, sodium, and fat content. Recipe modifications were also made and included: eliminating or reducing the use of high-sodium, high-fat ingredients (e.g., bacon, sour cream, processed cheese, and partially prepped convenience foods); substituting whole grain bread/buns/tortillas for items made with refined flour; replacing higher fat luncheon meats with leaner, lower-sodium meats in sandwiches and wraps; and replacing full-fat salad dressings with lighter versions. The cafés also reduced the varieties of ice cream and candy for sale and discontinued pies and cakes.
HCPH worked in partnership with Three Rivers parks to market and brand the healthier fare, labeled Better for You.” Foods and beverages meeting the nutrition standard are designated with a check mark on menus, and photos of foods and beverages are placed on Better for You” sandwich boards placed outside park concessions.
Even though the Three Rivers nutrition standards apply to all parks in the district, the multiple food service facilities have historically operated independently of one another, each with its own unique facilities, menu, and personnel. Due to this independence in such a large park system, HCPH staff has had to meet with each park separately to identify needed changes and solutions, in addition to bringing the parks together in joint meetings. The common Three Rivers nutrition standards are necessary to both unify the park food service operations and ensure sustainability of this practice. HCPH will continue to work both collectively and individually with Three Rivers parks to expand and unify this effort. Other park systems nationwide that consist of either an individual park or multiple parks could emulate this model.
Other lessons learned include:
Maintaining park district leadership support is essential for this initiative to succeed
Standard operating procedures are needed for park staff, including nutrition standards, food and beverage inventories, and food distributor and vendor ordering information for healthier options
It's important to not only create nutrition standards, but source food and beverages that:
Meet the nutrition standards
Are cost effective
Have a long shelf life, if applicable
Require heating or cooling equipment that are feasible with park food service facilities
Technical assistance from dietitians is indispensable
Limitations of busy park staff and seasonal park work necessitate the help of public health staff (or other outside source), as well as an internal park point person, for the time and support needed to move the project forward
Perseverance and patience are needed from all involved
Prior to this initiative, Three Rivers cafes and concessions operated independently. To ensure consistency and sustainability of healthier food and beverage practices across their park concessions, HCPH worked closely with Three Rivers staff to develop standard operating procedures. This included application of Three Rivers nutrition standards to all food and beverages offered to the public, Better for You” branding and marketing, streamlined food and beverage ordering for park staff, performing pre-and-post season food and beverage inventories, and conducting routine evaluation of customer feedback. Additionally, it has become a practice for park district food and beverage contract managers to insert language around healthier options into requests for proposals (RFPs) and vendor contracts. All of the above has helped the food service in these parks operate more cohesively to provide healthier food and beverages to park visitors and ensure sustainability. The fact that park leadership is on board and involved in this project also ensures sustainability.
This project aligns with one of Three Rivers' core values: Improving the lives and well-being of individuals, families, and the community. Healthier concessions also fits with the Three Rivers July 2010 strategic 10-year vision plan, which states, Solutions to [the obesity epidemic] are multi-faceted; however, parks and recreation agencies at all levels can and do play an ever-increasing role in addressing this problem.”