Camp Junk Food

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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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164 comments to Camp Junk Food

  • LW

    My husband is the executive director of a summer camp in NC which when founded in the 1940s was built on the idea that kids “don’t get dessert twice a day” at home, so we should offer this at camp. We have personally been involved for 10 years and I have felt passionate about changing the food culture. We have a fabulous food director and kitchen staff, but it is really hard to eat healthy while feeding hundreds of people three times a day. Especially on a tight budget and the need for the kids to eat since they are so active. I would recommend starting with manageable changes. For me, this was serving only water at lunch, offer as much fresh fruit as able, veggies at lunch and dinner. The food director also tries to make from scratch as much as possible: pizza dough, bread, spaghetti sauce (which he blends kale and bell peppers into..makes my heart rejoice), muffins, BBQ. I feel like this has helped tremendously cutting some of the processed food (but there is still a lot). And the fact is kids don’t eat as healthy when parents are not involved. I see it first hand all summer. Another change we made was in our snack shop. This past summer, we kept all the candy bars, etc, but added cliff bars, Z bars, dried apples, nuts, kashi bars, Vitamin water (I got all this from Costco since our distributor did not carry them) and changed the size of all soft drinks and gatoraide to 8 oz. For the morning snack, campers could only choose from the “healthy” options.
    It is an uphill battle but I do believe small changes matter and having more options help…and kids are only eating this bad for one session the entire summer (unless you are my family and we are there for 12 weeks), which is why they had 145 green smoothies from june-august.

  • Emily

    It is always interesting to me to hear about other camp experiences. When I was younger I went to several day camps so I didn’t experience many of the food issues that parents/children run across. But for the past six years I have worked at an arts overnight camp. And at my camp we most certainly don’t serve soda or other unhealthy drinks at dinner… we don’t offer dessert often and when we do it is a surprise offered after the full meal is over.

    We offer vegetarian diets and other dietary options. Campers can buy candy/soda every other day, and only “two wet, two dry” limit.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that not all camps offer poor food options. If you hope to make a change, go for it! Healthy food at overnight camp is not unreachable.

  • I attended a wonderful camp in NC that grew its own fruits and veggies, had campers work the farm, and served the same foods they grew at meals. We were encouraged to at least try small portions of foods we didn’t like or weren’t familiar with, and sodas and candy were not present at all (there’s no snack stand, but we did get to have smores on our overnights!). Based on their website and the literature I still receive from them, this is still their practice. It was a wonderful experience, great food, and I don’t think anyone really minded. Of course, we all looked forward to those smores!

  • Lisa,
    So glad I came upon your blog post! I have been a camp director for 31 years now and we have made a dramatic shift in our food service at our overnight camp. Nothing like having your own family to make it clearer to yourself about what is good for kids. Keep talking to your camp, this is the trend and the desire of people and if enough people make their voices heard, the camp will change. We changed before the voices came, ha, ha. We recently hosted a food service workshops for camps through our American Camp Association Indiana section here at our camp. We even gave a presentation just on the things we had changed and explained to attendees how for many food items it cost the same to change to a less processed or no processed food item than to buy the processed one from the big food companies. More money goes into the pockets of the local people working in your kitchen and less gets sent to the big box food company some 500 miles away.
    I’d be happy to share with you all of the changes we have made in our camp’s food service department.

  • Sara

    Wow…having been the ast. director at a summer camp for 4 years I can tell you we would never feed our kids like this! Since we came in 4 years ago we have been working to change the kitchen and offer more healthy choices to the girls (girl scout camp!).

    Every meal has water on the tables and you have to have a glass before having milk or bug juice (lunch only). We have a salad bar and while its expensive for us to offer variety we do try to make sure its different every few days and there is always homemade soup out. Dessert is inly served at dinner (used to be lunch to!), all grains are whole wheat, and there is no meat served on mondays (I take issue with this one lol), and fruit is left out all day for the taking. Candy is a real treat and there must be a really good reason for it. Soda has no place at camp and we only offer gatorade on the hottest days to trick them into drinking a little more.

    Camp isn’t always going to be healthy, we love to cookout desserts at night and have gooey treats. However, if you find the right camp the food doesn’t need to be a complete disaster!

  • [...] Lisa  Leake wrote a post about her 8-year-old’s sleep­away expe­ri­ence, which she titled Camp Junk Food (really, doesn’t that just say it all?). Back in July, it was obe­sity spe­cial­ist Yoni [...]

  • Erin Miles


    I just read this post and laughed. As a Camp Professional for 20 years, I have seen this! The goey mac & cheese with cheese sauce that you can’t pronounce ingredients and other “fun” foods. Having said this, most camps (at least in Canada) have made huge changes in their menus, working with local dieticians and food producers to create menus with very healthy choices. At the camps I Directed, we got rid of boughten tuck (junk food time), and replaced it with homemade versions of things like yogurt parfaits, ice cream sandwiches, fruit pops – using real fruit & 100% juice. We also had to adapt to many new food allergies: nuts, soy, dairy, wheat….
    As a Director, I always encouraged parents to ask about the menu which we made readily available so that they could see it. As for water – it was always available and we never served soda. When you spend the big bucks, the food provided for your children should be at least 95% healthy. For the next camp experience, ask in advance. Good food (as you know), doesnt mean junk!
    PS: love this site & the recipies.
    Thank you!

  • Soph

    Just came across this post while looking for this (wonderful wonderful) blog. I am from Europe (Austria) and worked at a summer camp in the US during the summer of 2012. While I have a lot of stories to tell about that summer, one of the most horrible things I remember was the food! I worked in the kitchen (as a non-native speaker of English they wouldn’t let me be a counselor, even despite the fact that I work as an English teacher and have worked as a counselor for Arts&Crafts and Low Ropes for years – again… lots of stories, sorry to ramble!). Working in the kitchen did not include any type of food prep, because EVERYTHING came from a package! I’m not even kidding, even the salad was pre-cut and came in a plastic bag that had another plastic bag inside it with cut carrots and red cabbage. I absolutely hated the Mac&Cheese, which had a very orangy looking sauce on it that tasted like melted fatty plastic. Luckily there was always (white) bread and peanut butter around to have instead.

    The worst of it, though, was that I was in charge of handing out the night time snack for the kids. All they had and ordered were processed sweets. I was happy for the nights I had crackers to give them. The drinks were all sugary stuff, but at least there was water from taps nearby. Still, I a) don’t think these kids needed any snack 2 hours after dinner and b) don’t believe that sugary snacks are a good way to end a day when you have to get these kids to bed right after!

    As what the parents paid for 3 weeks of this camp was an amount of money I’d not earn in 5 months, I still can’t understand why they would allow such bad quality of food to be fed to their kids. The summer camps I work at here are WAY cheaper, but the food is always prepared fresh from fresh ingredients (with the odd sausage & fries day inbetween). Afternoon snacks were usually fruit and water, cold tea or juice, and for meal times only water (though the kids were allowed to bring a few snacks to camp and those were usually sweets, but kids are kids :) We did not allow energy drinks and caffeinated drinks for the smaller ones). I’m not saying that it’s always a perfectly balanced meal they get here, but I would say that making things from scratch is the way to go. Oh, and not to mention the kitchen would prepare night-time snacks for the counselors which always included fruit, different types of cheese, some veggies and super nice bread rolls :D

    • Soph

      *through this blog (not for)

      Oh, I forgot, and this baffles me still to this day: At the US-camp we made HUGE batches of these drinks that were a powdered mixture. It came in different colors like pink and purple and even blue! The drinks would then stain the plastic tables so we had to bleach them from time to time. Also the ice pops stained the tables. I’m pretty sure that this type of food coloring served every day is not healthy. Oh, also, we served food in styrofoam bowls or on styrofoam plates, accompanied by styrofoam cup, and the “silverware” (really, shouldn’t it be metal if it says silver in the name?) was plastic. Serving anything in styrofoam and drinking from it (especially when the food items are hot) just doesn’t seem like a smart idea to me. Again – if I’d be paying this much for camp, I would demand a change.

      I hope your daughter will have lots more camp adventures! Camp is a wonderful time! She seems like a very smart kid to try to make the right choices!

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