Eating Well at Summer Camp

If you went to summer camp as a child, you probably remember doing bunk duty, cleaning up the cabin floor once a week and taking turns to scrub down the bathroom. But who ever heard of garden chores, barn work or kitchen clean-up?


Then again, come lunchtime, you probably dug into a big bowl of mac ‘n cheese, washed down with a couple glasses of bug juice. A choice of a salad bar? Not likely.


How times have changed.


With the growing concern over childhood obesity, many camps are taking the initiative about healthy eating and plenty of exercise. Of course, camp is almost synonymous with activity, from walking to field games. Camps offer a great opportunity to encourage physical challenges, teach lifelong active pursuits and learn active lifestyle behaviors.


But increasingly, camps are also encouraging healthy behavior in the dining hall, where thoughtful menu planning and physical exercise are helping stem the problem of weight gain among children. 


Plantation Farm Camp, a 500-acre working farm in Sonoma County, is a prime example of a camp that seeks to instill a different way of looking at food. Every child, from the youngest up, has a daily farm chore before breakfast and dinner. That may include milking one of the three dairy cows, bucket feeding a calf or feeding scraps to the pigs.  


Campers also are expected to help in the garden by taking out the compost and harvesting their greens and veggies from garden to kitchen.


 “We’re not a petting zoo,” says John Chakan, the director. “We are very good at exposing kids to where their food comes from – and where it goes. They learn what it means to be a sustainable community, to raise food organically in a low impact manner.”


Being kids, of course, they still like their hamburgers and pizza. But, says Chakan, the activity level is so high that even kids who may eat more at camp still often go home weighing less.


Though not a weight loss camp per se, campers are weighed before and at the end of their time at Plantation. And yes, most of them lose weight.


“It is one of the measures we use to see that people are being healthy, that our cooks aren’t using too much butter,” Chakan says. “We encourage people to make good decisions in the dining room. We provide healthy food and then help them have a healthy relationship with food -- partly through family dining. Our counselors help role model at the table. The cooks control portion size; it’s not an all-you-can-eat buffet table.”


The Risks of Childhood Obesity 

About 30 percent of children ages 6 to 19 are overweight and 15 percent are obese, according to the American Obesity Association. It’s a serious problem, associated with many adverse health effects, including asthma, hypertension and diabetes.


Being overweight also carries psychological risks, often from teasing. Appearance affects kids’ confidence and self-esteem and can lead to isolation and depression.


And, of course, overweight children tend to grow up into overweight adults, who have a higher risk of developing serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer and high blood pressure.


“It is more important than ever for our youth to be physically active when they are not in school,” says Sari VanOtegham, president of American Camp Association (ACA) Northern California. “At camp, children and youth participate in healthy activities that contribute to the growth of healthy habits.”


Most camps around the country have responded to the alarm calls by serving more fruits and vegetables than they did just a few years ago. About four in 10 have explicitly reduced the use of fried foods and sweets or sugary foods. Some offer low or no-fat options.


In a recent survey, two-thirds of all camps responding said they offer vegetarian options, with 21 percent offering vegan choices. More than one in 10 provides foods that are organic, locally grown or both. And even in the camp canteen, the trend is toward healthier choices and less candy or junk food.


Of course, camps have always placed an emphasis on health and fitness. Because they are rooted in experiential learning, summer camps provide opportunities for children to exercise and have experiences that are far removed from the world of TV and videogames. But today, the activities and food options they provide – and the healthy behaviors they teach – are more important than ever. 


Hidden Villa’s Mission of Health

Consider Hidden Villa Summer Camp in Los Altos, which offers a day program for 6- and 7-year-olds, followed by a one- or two-week overnight session when they’re a little older.


Hidden Villa’s summer camp has always had a sense of mission. It began in 1945 as the first multiracial summer camp in the nation. These days, its mission has turned to environmental justice, according to Camp Director Nikki Bryant.


“I think we have always been big into healthy eating,” Bryant says. “Unfortunately, children usually don’t find themselves face-to-ace with fresh green salad on a regular basis.” 


They do, however, at Hidden Villa. During their daily chores at camp, kids can harvest some carrots, bring them into the kitchen and watch them appear on their dinner table. “We make it a point to produce a fresh green something at every meal,” says Bryant. “We try to provide a healthy diet for everyone, to get them beyond hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza. So they might try a fresh stir fry.”


According to research conducted by the ACA, 63 percent of children who learn new activities at camp tend to continue these activities after they return home.


Indeed, campers from Plantation often bring their new values home with them, according to Chakan, who says, grinning, that after a session at Plantation, many kids return home determined to create a compost pile in the backyard.


Sara Solovitch is an associate editor of Bay Area Parent.

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