Healthy food at a sporting event? Are you kidding? Five to 10 years ago this would have been unthinkable. But, it’s becoming more commonplace each year as Americans strive to be healthier and park and recreation agencies expand their commitment to promoting healthy lifestyles. And, that’s exactly what Johnson County Park and Recreation District (JCPRD) in Kansas is doing in its most popular sports and theater venues.
The decision was made to make it easier for patrons to stick to their New Year’s resolutions by starting 2013 with healthy concessions offerings at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee and New Century Fieldhouse in Gardner. These two facilities, which host primarily youth programs, welcome more than 500,000 visitors annually. In the summer of 2013, JCPRD’s outdoor community theater, The Theatre in the Park, made the switch to healthier food choices at its concession stand. Through an initiative marketed as JCPRD Smart Snacks SCORE!, visitors to these facilities can now enjoy a jalapeno chicken wrap, a turkey sandwich on multigrain bread, or a grilled chicken breast on flatbread. The fryers are gone and fried food is a thing of the past. Food is grilled or cooked in high-speed commercial convection ovens, and snacks and sides now include baked chips, apples and bananas.
Menu boards display the calorie count for each item, so patrons can make an educated decision when choosing what to eat. Nutritional pamphlets are available upon request and are even displayed poster-size at some facilities. Healthy eating is also promoted through portion control. Gone are large candy bars, although fun-size candy can be purchased for a quarter.
JCPRD frequently states that “Everything We Do Makes a Healthier You,” so it was really a decision of walking the talk. Now, we really do make a healthier you, not only by promoting active lifestyles, but also by encouraging smart food choices.
As with most park and recreation agencies, JCPRD is heavily reliant on concession revenues to support operations at its sports facilities. From a financial standpoint, there was concern about making the switch. Staff worried it might have a negative impact on revenues, but they’ve been pleasantly surprised. The community embraced the initiative and concession sales have remained high. Not only has the community embraced it, but the SCORE! program at one venue also is sponsored by a local healthcare organization which provides additional revenue for the agency.
Staff at the venues often hear positive comments from patrons; for example, a high school volleyball player said, “Look mom, they’ve got calorie counts on their menu board!” And, a 6-year old basketball player who excitedly asked his mom to buy him an apple — and she just as excitedly said, “You bet!”
In 2013, when a local news station did a feature story on the new menu, a volleyball mom was quick to give the healthy concession options a very high score: “I’ve gone with my daughter to volleyball games and tournaments at many facilities over the years,” she told the reporter. “When I visited JCPRD’s concession stand, I thought ‘Oh my gosh.’ As the parent of a young athlete, I want to have healthy options for my child. She’s an athlete trying to perform at a high level, and when we’re at a volleyball venue for the entire day, we want to have healthy options available.”
Making the switch was not a quick and easy transition. Months of research and planning occurred, and several factors contributed to its successful implementation. Staff was involved, through numerous tasting opportunities, to ensure that the food really tasted good. Vendors were informed of JCPRD’s strong desire for healthier options and asked for input on menu items. Pricing was carefully considered, with healthier foods priced competitively so as to encourage their purchase. And, frontline staff was educated to help promote healthier choices. Before and after the program’s implementation, JCPRD consulted with the local health department regarding nutritional standards, and now ensures that more than 50 percent of concession items meet those standards.
Valuable lessons were learned along the way:
- If it’s not on the menu, people don’t ask for it.
- Customers appreciate having healthy options.
- Parents appreciate it for their kids.
- Revenues did not suffer as it was feared they would.
JCPRD is thrilled to be fully “walking the talk” and proud that its venues truly make a positive impact on patrons’ health, not only through the activities they provide, but also with the food they serve.
Jill Geller, CPRE, is Executive Director of Johnson County Park & Recreation District.