Camp Junk Food


My daughter at her first overnight camp!

Okay, so I know the title here is rather harsh. Let’s be honest – I totally expected my 8-year-old daughter to eat junk food while away at her very first overnight camp last week. Both of my children (and my husband for that matter) have what I call a “stomach of steel.” They can eat just about anything with no ill effects whatsoever, so I knew there would be no immediate consequences (like a food sensitivity) for her to contend with while away from home. But just because one may feel fine after immediately eating highly processed junk food doesn’t mean it isn’t doing any damage. After all, according to Michael Pollan’s research, four of the top ten chronic diseases that kill most of us – coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – “can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food.”

Our Little Pre-Camp Chat

So even though my daughter has no specific food-induced medical conditions to worry about, we still had a friendly little chat before she embarked upon her very first week away from home without a parent or grandparent by her side. As I’ve shared before, I absolutely do NOT want my two young girls to ever “worry” about food (or anything for that matter). But that doesn’t mean I won’t educate them along the way when it’s appropriate (just as I will with many other important topics in life). So I told her that there would be junk food at camp and eating it was totally fine, BUT my advice to her was to eat a lot of what she knew was good (i.e. for sure a whole food – straight from the earth) and just a little bit of what wasn’t. And what did she do in my absence? She ate Froot Loops for breakfast daily – “with pineapple on the side!”. As I mentioned she is a completely typical 8-year-old so this is what happened when she was left to her own devices :) I guess I should be thankful for the serving of fruit? And truth be told – I was thankful for that and told her so. I was sure to reinforce the positive and not at all harp on any of the “negatives” of the week.

Some Good Decisions

And she actually did make some other really good choices on her own that made me very proud. She tried out the salad bar (like I had suggested before she left home), but how can I blame her for her boredom with it halfway through the week when it was basically the same drab salad bar night after night? This is my girl who honestly loves salads and vegetables even more than I do so I know she tried. She also followed some other advice I’d given her long ago about asking for a glass of water. I always tell both of my girls that when they are at friends’ houses or birthday parties they should always be gracious guests and accept what is served, but it is NEVER too much trouble to ask for a cup of water. I tell them if they are already eating birthday cake and candy and who knows what else – there is no reason to then wash it down with a sugary juice or soda – so just ask for water.

And to my surprise she actually remembered this advice at camp, and when dinner was followed with handouts of candy (Skittles to be exact) and a choice of soda or Powerade…what did she do (in addition to accepting the Skittles of course)? She politely asked for water! That’s my girl. Except she told me (in her own words) “they looked at me like I was crazy and didn’t have any water to offer.” So as a result she tried the Sprite (since she said it looked most like water). She apparently hated it and poured it out on the grass and finally settled on the bright blue Powerade (“which is actually good, mom!”). Is it just me or are sugary drinks really necessary to wash down the packs of candy? Just for the record, they apparently did give the campers water to drink earlier in the night at dinner because they weren’t allowed to have juice until they drank their water first (one of the more impressive food guidelines I heard about!), but unfortunately things seemed to go downhill in that department once the dinner hour was over.

Amazing Experience (with or without the junk food)

Junk Food at Camp #realfood - 100 Days of Real Food

Leaving the art building at camp

So, yes – her first camp experience (from a non-food perspective) was a once in a lifetime adventure. Her counselors were absolutely wonderful, she made some amazing new friends, and she LEARNED some pretty impressive new skills (water skiing, archery, sailing, horseback riding – and independence of course – just to name a few). BUT we did pay a pretty penny to be able to send her there for this experience (that she absolutely loved) so I feel I have the right to complain about the food. I absolutely knew it wasn’t going to be great, but as I am piecing things together through her various stories I admit the food situation sounds worse than I was expecting. Nachos with runny orange cheese anyone? Not to mention the kids who are more sensitive than she is and came home from camp not feeling well as a result of all that junk – including one of her cabin-mates in particular.

Time for Change

But, I am not one to just sit here and complain without trying to do something about it (hence this blog of mine). I was the same way about their elementary school, but felt similarly in the fact that it was only respectful to spend the first year observing before I try to butt my way in and start suggesting changes :) I am sure there are all sorts of constraints that force the camp to do things the way they do (i.e. limited time, limited budget, limited space, picky eaters, etc.) – but I admit I am hard-pressed to find a reason why each night would HAVE to end with skittles and soda. Can you think of one?

During this first overnight camp experience of ours I came into contact with two other camp moms (who are acquaintances) that both happen to feel the same way I do – so I can only imagine there must be more who feel the same? Maybe they haven’t spoken up yet or just don’t know where to start (or think they are alone)? So I don’t know what the first step toward change will be yet, but one thing I do know is that it will be something. I was recently inspired by the changes Carrie Vitt with Deliciously Organic made at her own daughters’ overnight camp. She knew they could provide better choices as well and offered to give them some guidance – which they gladly accepted! And the changes she made – super fresh and wholesome food at a minimal increase in cost – were very well received by both the campers and the staff. The outcome was super impressive if I do say so myself and drives home the fact that it can be done. And even though I am sure it won’t be an easy road I can’t just sit back and not try.

Have any of you been through something similar with overnight camp and have advice to share? I am all ears!

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  • Comments

    1. Megan |

      Definitely try! I honestly believe that many people just don’t think about the food the put in their bodies or serve to others. They don’t know what they don’t know. But I also believe that a little information can go a long way.

      Perhaps point out to them that Skittles have the highest level of neurotoxic food dyes of any of the candies tested in this recent study (well, tied with M&Ms). Even getting them to switch to a less harmful candy would be a step in the right direction.

      Good luck!

    2. Beth |

      Your post is so timely to my life! I just returned from Church Camp with my daughter and packed 3 days worth of fresh food for her and I. Although I go to serve as a counselor, I really also feel that the only way to ensure that my super sensitive stomached daughter survives is to be her meal sidekick supplying food that will save her gut. After the first day, I was feeling good about my mothering skills. I had slid her a fresh PBJ at dinner and a cutie to avert the processed corn dog and fries. Yet, at 3am I heard her sit up in her bunk, cough, and vomit. Ahhh for the love of food aversions! After cleaning her up and reassuring other counselors that this is the result of some food culprit. Me: “Honey, did you drink the red powder drink in your snack bag?” “Yes.” “Did you have fruit punch at dinner?” “Yes.” Darn you Red Dye 40!
      My suggestion is this: unapologetically pack food for your daughter and ask if they can store it in their camp kitchen. Make sure your daughter has access. Healthy snacks, fruit, drinks, whatever sets your heart at ease. Each kid rolls into camp with their own unique needs: medicines, need to wear a pull up, epi pen, homesick…and food sensitivities, so prepare whatever you wish to help your child be the best them they can be! Momma knows best :)

    3. |

      Have you ever heard of Juice Plus? They do an amazing children’s health study that has changed the lives of many children across the globe. If you choose to do the JP as an adult, you can sponsor a child for free as long as you are still eating Juice Plus. Check it out! It’s well worth it :)

    4. Caroline |

      I think you’d love Gwynn Valley Camp in Brevard, NC. Working farm, delicious food, great childhood experience. My three kids attended for two weeks last summer. Good luck!

    5. |

      I’m a Bible Camp person- I see all those Skittle laden little ones for nine weeks a summer! Some camps (like ours) limit the treats – one piece of candy per day per camper for the little ones, two for the slightly bigger kids… and no soda. For our youth group weekends (middle school or high school kids), we don’t have the soda machines or the camp store (candy) open in the evenings.

      One of the big issues facing camps is the limited resources. Many camps are non-profits- and most don’t even make enough money from camp fees to break even. It’s hard to provide nutritious food when you have no budget! And many of our camps do a great job of using what they’ve got.

      I wrote a post about suggestions for kids with food allergies/sensitivities when coming to camp- (here: I’d also suggest that parents go ahead and call the camp to find out about the menu for the week, and plan additional meals or supplements as you think necessary!

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