Parks and Recreation plans healthier foods at city-owned concession stands

There’s nothing quite like settling in for a ballgame with a healthy heap of concession stand carrot sticks.

Really, there’s nothing quite like it now in Lawrence, and the city’s Parks and Recreation department is looking to change that. Leaders are crafting a policy for city-owned concession stands at ball fields and recreation centers that will require at least half of offerings to meet nutritional guidelines.

Ernie Shaw, who leads the city’s parks and recreation department, said his staff decided it was time to make a bolder statement about the importance of healthy eating.

“That’s really the business we’re in,” Shaw said. “We want to try to make people healthier. We run programs for that, but what we haven’t done for a while is educate people about nutrition.”

Concession vendors still will be able to sell big, greasy cheeseburgers, said Tim Laurent, recreation operations manager. “But they’re also going to have to offer a turkey sandwich or something like that.”

The city has concession stands at the Youth Sports Complex, the Clinton Lake Softball Complex, the indoor and outdoor aquatic centers, and will have a significant concessions operation at the new Rock Chalk Park recreation center.

The change is not likely to occur until next year, when menus will start to feature items Lawrence residents don’t expect to see at a concession stand. The city will require each concession stand to offer at least one fresh fruit or vegetable. Health beverages are considered to be plain water, 1 percent or fat-free milk, or 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices with no added caloric sweeteners.

To be considered “healthy” food will need to contain 200 or fewer calories, a fat content of 35 percent or less, saturated fat of no more than 10 percent, and no more than 35 percent sugar by weight.

The company that wins the concessionaire’s contract will decide exactly what type of healthy food finds its way onto menus, Laurent said. The current contract is set to expire at the end of the year.

“Based on what I’ve seen at other places that have tried this, I’ve seen a lot of turkey sandwiches, turkey wraps, grilled chicken, fruits and vegetables are in there now,” Laurent said. “We’ve tried some of this in the past, but we haven’t really been committed to it.”

Shaw said he’ll encourage whatever company wins the contract to post calorie information for each product they sell. The policy also requires that healthy foods be priced equal to or less than comparable products that don’t meet the health guidelines. In other words, department officials said, they don’t want it to be more expensive to eat healthy.

Laurent said the department plans to accept proposals for a beverage provider — currently it is Pepsi — later this month. The department hopes to accept proposals from concessions operators — currently it is Hy-Vee — in October.

Laurent said he is uncertain how concessionaire companies and consumers will respond to the new policy. Johnson County has implemented a similar policy and had success, he said.

Lori Howell, the catering manager for Hy-Vee who oversees the concession stands, said it will be a challenge to convince concession stand patrons to buy healthier. She said three years ago Hy-Vee offered salads, fruit and other such offerings, but they sold poorly.

“I think people thought it was a good idea, but when it boiled down to it, they still would get the nachos or the hot dogs,” Howell said.

Laurent said coming up with an effective marketing strategy will be key.

“How you spin it will be important,” Laurent said. “Going out and saying ‘look at our healthy choices,’ may not be the way to go. The way Johnson County did it is they promoted these foods as foods that will help you perform.

“We’re definitely going to try to make it popular. We have been talking for years about being a leader in nutrition and health. We think this is a big step.”