Kids' Summer Camps Cleaning Up Menus

Monday, July 12th 2004, 12:23 pm
By: News On 6

Like schools, the nation's roughly 12,000 summer camps are under growing pressure to clean up their menus as parents and public health officials become increasingly concerned about childhood obesity.

While schools _ despite federal mandates _ have been slow to respond, the dining halls of the far less regulated camping industry have rushed to replace fatty snacks and sugary drinks with sprouts and steamed vegetables.

``It's amazing. Honestly, it's better than the food I get at home,'' Gabe Wolff, a 15-year-old attending Windsor Mountain International camp, said recently while tucking into a salad with the sort of teenage boy-gusto normally reserved for pizza.

As with so many camps today, food is a source of pride for the Windsor, N.H., operation, where the offerings include vegetarian options at every meal, homemade bread and baskets of fresh fruit.

That's a world of difference for an industry known as much for serving junk food as for its archery and swim lessons.

``It has changed drastically since I was a child,'' said Viki Kappel Spain, a Portola, Calif., woman who has written two books about summer camp food service and nutrition. ``Camp was so exciting you kind of just lived through the food.''

These days summer camps thrive because of their food, not despite it. That's due partly to changing dietary demographics, including a greater awareness of food allergies and more nutrition-savvy parents.

While promoting healthy foods and fitness once was the domain of weight-loss camps, mainstream programs have realized during the past decade that what's good for children also is good for business.

``If you don't develop a reputation for having outstanding food and variety, if you do not offer choices that please most of the people most of the time,'' you can't compete, Spain said.

Twenty years ago, vegetarians represented maybe 1 percent of campers and staff members, she said. Today more than 25 percent demand meatless options, and a summer of peanut butter and jelly won't suffice.

Vegetarians are just the start. Health conditions that require strict diets, including diabetes and peanut allergies, are on the rise. And with more children battling the bulge, cutting calories has become a concern for every camp.

``They've heard the word of parents, of consumers, of doctors, of nutritionists,'' said Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association. ``Ten years ago a camp with a salad bar was an anomaly. Today it's really the norm.''

Schools face the same pressures, but have been criticized for the pace of their response. Many rely on snack and soda sales to prop up other programs, but most camps' fees cover all programs and food, said Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camping Association.

That makes it easier for camps to get rid of junk food, she said. In fact, many already have eliminated such items from their stores, and some even tell parents not to send sweets-filled care packages.

``You'll have parents say we want better food, healthier food, we don't want junk food, and at the same time ... sending care packages to kids with junk food in them,'' Solomon said.

The pressure for change isn't just from the parents sending the estimated 10 million kids to residential and day camps every year; healthy food also is vital to staffing.

Heather Kiley, director of Camp Merrowvista in Tuftonboro, N.H., said the young adult counselors tend to be active and health-conscious. They aren't willing to spend a summer eating the camp equivalent of fast food.

``It's really important that they don't feel they're having deep-fried Tater Tots and deep-fried fish sticks every day,'' she said. ``They need to feel they have healthy options available to them at each meal.''

Though the mainstreaming of healthy foods _ especially vegetarian items _ has made them more affordable for camps, Spain said many struggle when asked to cater to pricey fad diets, such as the current low-carb craze.

She said most camps have noticed an unexpected benefit to offering better food.

``If you talk to 100 camp counselors they'll tell you exactly the same thing _ cut back on sugar and caffeine and the kids are much more manageable,'' Spain said.

Despite the many changes, some summer camp traditions hold. Hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza still make appearances, just less frequently and usually accompanied by more fresh produce. And s'mores, those gooey melts of chocolate bar and toasted marshmallow smooshed between Graham crackers, remain fireside staples, Smith said.

At Merrowvista, dessert still often is cookies or cake _ albeit in limited portions.

``It's a balance of things,'' explained Kiley. ``It's not all health food, but there are healthy options with it.''