Guest blog: Camp food

Jenna Cowan White works for Fowler Camp and Retreat Center in Speculator, NY.  In the “off” season she teaches Family and Consumer Science to middle schoolers, helping them to examine their own food choices and how they impact the world around them.  Jenna lives with her husband, newborn daughter, Murphy the dog and a handful of chickens in upstate NY.

After the last bell rings, school’s out for summer!  And what do the kids do?  Many of them participate in a rite of passage…summer camp.  From Maine to California kids travel in droves to camps that last for a week, a month or the whole summer.  One of the major stigmas in summer camp circles is the idea of “camp food”.  It becomes the butt of many jokes, it is sometimes unrecognizable and often scores low on the “tasty” scale.  Camp food is less stringently regulated than school food, which leaves many to wonder…what are our kids eating at camp?

Having worked at summer camps for 25 years, as well as six years teaching outdoor education at camps during the school year, I have eaten A LOT of camp food.

There is a prevalent cultural habit of treating unhealthy food as a reward.  When we go to a birthday party we have chips, cake and soda, if we eat all of our spinach we can have a cookie, when we go to summer camp it’s vacation so let’s have chicken nuggets and tater tots, hamburgers and fries.  All this just leaves us feeling miserable. Eleven years ago I decided I’d had enough.  I had come to the realization that if I was feeling so bad after eating this food, what could it possibly be doing to benefit our campers?

So I wrote a proposal to our camp director that outlined some ideas regarding transforming our summer kitchen into more of a whole foods kitchen.  Some of these ideas included eliminating “bug juice” from the menu (you know the kind, open packet and add water to find some gloriously colored beverage appearing before your eyes), taking out half of the desserts, offering a full salad bar at every meal and always having fresh fruit available.  The camp director seemed intrigued with the idea and it fit perfectly with our larger camp ideals and goals, so his response was “let’s give it a try!”   His next question was, “do you want to be the cook next summer?”

I replied with an emphatic “Yes!” that was also filled with nervous excitement because I knew the task was a large one.  We feed an average of 200 people a week three meals a day.  The task was more than just changing the food on the plate, it was also changing the way people thought about the food and the role food plays in our lives, even beyond their time at camp.

School lunches and summer camp food have become so institutionalized that people who run these kitchens don’t necessarily need to know much about cooking (not to say they don’t, but they wouldn’t need to) because it’s as easy as add water, stir, and voila!  I really wanted to actually make the food.  Nourishment is so much more than filling the belly and I wanted to serve food that I was proud of, that I’d put heart and sweat into, and that I could stand behind proudly.  This does not come in a box.  We’ve been able buy the majority of our whole foods ingredients from a natural foods supplier and use our typical food service supplier for items that are just too far out of our budget or unavailable from the whole foods supplier along with some basic food service needs (i.e. plastic wrap, etc).

Each summer over the last 10 years we’ve been able to increase the amount of whole foods offerings.  There were multitudes of people who thought I was insane and didn’t think this would work.  People have been surprised to see that not only does it work, but kids and staff alike LOVE it and are noticeably healthier for it.  The camp nurse reports that the number of campers coming in with stomach aches and intestinal complaints have all but stopped.  Summer staff have been able to better sustain their level of energy through many difficult weeks of work.  The food budget actually decreased.  We are able to handle a multitude of food related allergies with relative ease because we know exactly what goes into the food, and can easily take something out if we need to.  Here’s a checklist of the specific changes in the way we do food over the last 10 years.

  • Fresh salad/breakfast bar at all three meals
  • Homemade bread for dinners, sandwiches, and French toast
  • Less meat
  • Homemade turkey breakfast sausage
  • Fresh fruit available all day
  • Creative and homemade vegetarian options every time meat is served
  • Less sugary juices
  • No more soda at the camp store
  • Eliminated half the desserts and make the desserts we do serve from scratch
  • Homemade pizza crust and whole grain English muffins
  • Switching from white rice to brown
  • Using real eggs!
  • Homemade pancakes, macaroni and cheese, home fries, veggie burgers, salad dressings, granola, soups, stuffing, spaghetti and pizza sauces, etc.

We have made great strides in our food service in the last 10 years and we are very proud of what we serve.  I am always amazed when I talk to people who just don’t seem to understand how important real food is.  Two examples come to mind.  In my second year cooking at the camp I was having a conversation with a local restaurant owner who couldn’t believe that we used real potatoes for mashed potatoes.  He kept telling me about instant potatoes in a pouch and all you have to do is boil in the bag, cut open and serve.  Forget the food atrocity happening here, where is the feeling one gets from a hard day’s work with satisfaction on a job well done?

The second example is from this past summer.  I was taking a tour of another camp kitchen.  The food service director was asking me where I  found my recipes and I told her I generally take recipes from my own kitchen and multiply them.  She went on to tell me that she found an old box with army food recipes from the 1950’s and to this day they use these recipes.  She claimed that the cook they hired last summer was too creative and bought all sorts of spices that she threw away this year because “kids don’t like spices” and “they won’t eat things that aren’t hot dogs and tater tots”.  I beg to differ. Our campers enjoy spices in their homemade spaghetti sauce, in their taco (turkey) meat and beans, they love the tofu wings (served as an alternate option to chicken nuggets) and they beg for tofu potpie.

We need to give kids more credit and we need to give them the opportunity to eat and enjoy healthy, real food.  We certainly aren’t perfect and I don’t claim that we do everything right, but we are certainly on the right path!  When people come to our camp, the food is not the butt of jokes.  Campers look forward to the food because they know it will not only taste great, but also is made thoughtfully and nutritiously with their best interest in mind.

It’s no secret that our nation’s food system needs to change and there are some high profile people who have brought the issues of our failing food system to the forefront of the public spotlight.  However, I truly believe that it is the daily efforts of regular people in regular places, in their own corners of the country that are going to make the most difference.  If only 10 people each summer go home from our camp thinking differently about food and making some changes of their own at home, then we’ve made a difference that is rippling throughout our communities.

Thanks Jenna for sharing your experience with us — I couldn’t agree more! -Mrs Q

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23 thoughts on “Guest blog: Camp food

  1. I have spent the last three weeks looking at NYC day camps both in and out of the city and one major hurdle is the food! I pack my son lunch every day for school. At home we eat organic and plant-based. I am deeply committed to the School Food movement through several organizations. However I’ve discovered when it comes to summer camp all bets are off – most serve cold cuts or pizza, chicken fingers, pasta and hot dogs. And many of them do not want campers to pack lunch from home, they prefer if all their kids “eat the same thing” – which is maddening. It’s wonderful to see some news about “a” camp considering serving real and healthy food to kids. If anyone else has ideas for young (6) campers and decent consideration of food, please let me know! Thanks, Dinneen

  2. I absolutely loved this guest blog post! Very true. Kudos to you, Jenna, for making a difference in one camp kitchen and in some kids’ lives!

  3. Thanks for featuring Jenna! I attended this camp my whole life and worked there for one summer, which means I probably ate the hot dogs at some point, but I don’t remember camp-before-Jenna! Not only do Jenna and the kitchen staff make meals that gives you energy to last through the whole day, never feeling hungry or craving processes junk or candy, but she also works to prepare all the food that the week-long backpacking/canoeing trips bring out. Jenna always makes sure we have the right food to keep all the campers sustained everyday on the trail, whether it is 6 miles or 20 miles. I can’t even imagine how hard planning something like that must have been!
    Attending this camp with healthy options encouraged me to try being a vegetarian, because they made it an accessible option. While many campers try this for a week and then revert back, some of us stay in the habit. Thanks to camp, I was a vegetarian for 8 years! Camp made me aware of my food, what I was eating, and helped me to realize that I have choices. Even today I still make tofu wings at home (not as well as Jenna!).
    I hope that cafeterias and camps will read this. By presenting young folks with healthy options, it reforms the way we think about our food. By not making hot dogs the habit, we can realize that salad is a completely worthwhile dinner option. Further, by not eliminating the foods we love (pancakes, mac and cheese, cookies, pizza), but simply making them less refined and better for you, kids can learn about the value of eating less-processed foods, without feeling like they are being deprived.
    Camp is my favorite restaurant in the world, and I hope over time these ideas will become second-nature.

  4. I stumbled upon Camp Fowler a few years ago and it is unlike any other camp I’ve ever been a part of. The magic that happens in the kitchen is a HUGE part of that.

    And get this…

    I’ve been a wilderness guide the past few years at Fowler and Jenna even made the trail food good!

    I don’t know if you have ever had trail food, but once you have Camp Fowler trail food…it’s impossible to ever go back. We are talking home-made granola/energy bars, fruit leathers made out of real fruit, gorp that is sooooo full of dried fruit and nuts you can hardly call it gorp (Good Old Raisins & Peanuts), not to mention real pastas and home-dried sauces etc.

    No freeze dried junk here!!!

    The food at Camp Fowler is changed forever and we have Aunt Jenna to thank for that!

  5. We are very proud of Jenna and what she has done for Camp Fowler. She neglected to add that since our kitchen has been leaning towards whole foods, there has been a great increase in the numbers of volunteers who want to help. Also, the overall attitude in the kitchen has been positive, where in the past it had sometimes become bitter.
    People who are doing good work and who encouraged in that good work are generally happier people. As the camp director, I must say, this too has made life better at Camp Fowler.

  6. I wish my camp had served better, healthy food. I can tell you that the entire camp’s favorite day was pizza bagel day. We devoured those things like we’d never see them again. We did have a salad bar at lunch and dinner which was pretty progressive for the early ’90s.

    It’s good that there are so many adults who care because, from my experience, the kids certainly don’t! Camp, for kids, is viewed as a no rules, no holds barred free-for-all and the food is the literal icing on the cake.

  7. As someone who has eaten Jenna’s food, I couldn’t agree more that everyone loves her food!! In a few years I hope to send my kids to camp and know that they will be eating even better than they do at home!! I need to get some of your recipes Jenna!!

  8. What a great guest post! My kids’ opinion of camp is definitely affected by the food. I totally agree that we don’t give kids enough credit for liking certain foods, and we definitely don’t give them enough exposure at school or camp or daycare. These places would be a perfect opportunity for kids to try new foods since they are eating unfamiliar things anyway.

    I have a suggestion. It would be fun to share a few recipes either on the camp website or in a follow up newsletter. Can you imagine how happy a parent would be if their kids came home from camp, not only raving about the food, but also sharing a new recipe that they learned to love?

    I know I would get a big kick out of a recipe that my children introduced to me, and we’d have fun making it together.

  9. As someone who grew up at Camp Fowler and was on staff for a summer in 2008, it has been wonderful to see the transformation for “the early years”. Jenna (as well as others) are dedicated in making these changes for the better of the kids and everyone.

  10. I have work in camping Ministry for nearly 20 years and at two different camp have made similar changes and can say Yes it does work, Yes it does save money and Yes it makes a great marketing tool. Keep up the good work!

  11. I’ve been following your blog for about a year now. As a teacher in a small high needs/rural school district in upstate NY, I am appalled by the awful things my students are served for lunch. It disturbs me on so many levels. We espouse the belief that our students are worthy of a quality education yet we feed them garbage. What does this really say about how schools feel about kids?! My school has switched food service providers this year and, sadly, lunch has not only gone up in price but the portions have gotten smaller and the quality has declined even further.

    I saw today’s guest post and was excited to read it for a couple of reasons. First, my youngest brother worked at Camp Fowler in the late 1990s. Second, as I live and work only an hour from Camp Fowler, any administrator in my district would have that to connect to upon reading the post (which I plan to bring to people’s attention). After reading what has been done, I feel a new charge to my personal belief that change IS possible at my school.

    Mrs. Q– thank you for putting this post on your blog. Jenna– thank you for being an example of what can happen.

  12. Glad this blog got shared with me. I was pleased to read how this transformation came about. After working just one summer at Fowler in the Kitchen, I was so impressed with the offerings and how good everything tasted. Frankly , I wondered how they could afford it all with such a large number of campers and staff. Thanks for the vision Jenna had and that it has worked so well. Thanks to the decision makers for supporting these positive changes.

  13. This is fantastic! I am the Food Service Director at a Camp and Conference Center in Tahoe, and we are doing the same things. It is hard work, but definitely important work, and worth it! Serving the number of people that camps do is a great way to expose people to foods they have never tried before, or have never liked before. I would love to swap recipes if anyone is interested. Keep up the good work!

  14. I worked two different weeks this summer at Camp Fowler, and was amazed! The kids really ask for the fruit and the yogurt and the good choices (we couldn’t keep washing the fruit fast enough for them, and what a great thing that is)! What I took away from this is if they can do it for 200 three times a day than I can do it for my family of 3! We make a large effort to 1. not waste anymore, 2. sit at the supper table together and 3. make whole food an even larger part than it was before! What a beautiful place this is!

  15. Jenna is a wonderful cook and awesome person. She transformed a good kitchen into a great kitchen. And the fruit couln’t be washed fast enough, that was for sure. She was so good at explaining the healthy choices/ideas to volunteers who came to help out, too! She expanded many people’s ideas of healthy eating.

  16. I was wondering, and the comments I’ve seen so far haven’t really answered my question, so I’ll ask… Jenna – do the kids/campers get involved with the cooking/food prep as part of their camp experience?

    I’d love to send my kids to a camp with awesome, healthy food, and I know how much my kids love to help cook. I would love to send them to a camp that helps teach them how to cook and eat healthy.

  17. Reading the ingredients on camp food boxes is what made me become very passionate about what we are feeding the nation’s youth. We have completely forgotten that food is fuel, and not just something tasty. People have no idea the chemicals that are in mass produced foods, because they are not expecting anyone to care enough to read the label. Thank you so much for posting this article, it gives me hope.

  18. I remember the first summer at Fowler when only whole wheat bread was served (no Wonder Bread). “The kids will never eat it!” was a general concensus. Well, they did eat that bread, and the tofu and the fruit. Food creatively and lovingly prepared with no short cuts is so much better. None of the kids who now come to camp remember the days of preformed scrambled eggs. What a powerful statement is made when kids go home and talk about Jenna’s homemade tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches on homemade wholewheat bread, YUM! Something else that hasn’t been mentioned is that what little waste comes back to the dish line is composted and used in the camp garden. Imagine schools and restaurants composting!!! If a kitchen that puts out 600 meals a day can do is food for thought. Jenna has inspired so many adults and kids, my family included!

  19. My daughter has been attending Camp Fowler for 8 years and has loved the menu there which amazes me since she is a very picky eater! She always looks forward to favorite menu items before she goes, fondly refering to Aunt Jenna’s cooking. This is such a relief for me since she was diagnosed a Type I diabetic 3 years ago. At least I know she will have healthy choices daily with food that she will actually eat. What a blessing that Jenna and the staff took this to heart and that all who share in the meals there are treated to homemade wholesomeness! My daughter is looking forward to Summer 2012!

  20. For many years, I attend summer camps as a camper, a junior counselor, and a counselor, so I like to think that I have had a well-rounded experience concerning camp and camp food. As a camper, I attended a sleep-away camp at Vermont, so we had little choice in what food we ate, because it was all provided by the camp and we had not other options. Thankfully, the food was amazing. The kitchen staff made a conscious effort to provide healthy varieties in addition to homemade ‘junk food’ (pizza, chicken nuggets, etc.) as a treat every once in awhile. The kitchen staff also accommodated to food allergies, dietary restrictions, and vegetarians with excellent alternatives. There was a camp store from which the children could buy sweets and other food, but this was restricted to only a few hours each day.

    As a camp counselor, I worked at a local day camp with no kitchens, so the kids were required to bring their own lunches. Often times, I was appalled. Many children would come with a box of Lunchables or simply a pairing of sandwiches or chips with a drink. I often shared my lunch with the children.

    Another summer, I worked at an expensive sleep-away camp. Although there were alternatives, such as a fruit and salad bar, most of the camp food was processed junk food. A vegan friend and I would often buy our own food during our days off, so we would have something appropriate to eat the rest of that week (besides salad and fruit).

  21. I can’t tell you how happy this article makes me. Of course we should give kids more credit! If you tell someone they won’t ever succeed in life, it’s much likelier that they won’t succeed. Same goes for this – if you present “adult” food as if it were normal, kid food, kids will eat it!

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