Hesitation gave way to excitement as I unexpectedly grabbed the reigns of food service management, in the dripping, humid heat of a Texas summer camp season. Nine years had passed since I last served in this capacity at camp, but everything was coming back to me — the roar of kids laughing in the dining hall, the buzz of activity as cooks whirled by with fresh-baked yeast rolls, and the mouthwatering scent of fresh-baked chocolate chunk cookies! “Ahhhh,” I thought to myself, “the camp kitchen . . . this will be a breeze. I’ve GOT this!”

Two weeks flew by, and then my euphoria screeched to a halt when the registrar blandly stated, “You have thirteen campers with a range of six special dietary needs.”

I tried hard not to appear rattled when I learned that the food challenges of my campers included two MSG allergies, three gluten allergies, two chocolate allergies, one lactose intolerance, two peanut allergies, and three vegetarians. Remembering my earlier six years as a food service manager, I could only think of a few instances of special dietary requests. I assumed that this session was unique, but, little did I know, this was my introduction to a current trend. I learned that dealing with food challenges was more the norm than the exception.

Learning Curve

Struggling to fulf ill guest requests, I realized the challenge before me. From sites l ike WebMD and Pub Med to Allrecipes.com, I pored through articles that explained the gluten-free phenomenon (I had no clue!) and gluten-free, MSG-free, and vegetarian recipes.

I slowly came up with a plan: Integration is the key to success. Otherwise, food service managers could prepare up to four different entrees — or worse, four entirely dif ferent meals — at a greater-than-budgeted cost.

That week, our vegetarian grilled sandwiches were served on gluten-free bread, with fresh sliced vegetables and pure spices, in order to keep MSG out of the recipe. Some were served with feta cheese, to bind the veggies to bread, others without feta, in case our guests with lactose-intolerance desired a taste! Pizza, some gluten free, some not, was served, and the veggie marinara was requested by many who did not claim to be vegetarians. Indeed, integration of special diet items and our traditional menu items was the key to our success. Forethought and research pulled it all together, and although it was not easy, it was customer service.

A Survey

While attending Kitchen Connection — an annual conference for kitchen coordinators, food service managers, and chefs, hosted by the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association at Heartland Presbyterian Center — I noticed that I was not alone in serving campers with dietary challenges. I also noticed the many other challenges that we face in food service.

Discussion topics at the conference ranged from basic to complex, and the array of issues led me to create a survey from which we could gather data and inform future practices. The survey was sent to Kitchen Connection attendees; ACA, Texoma camps via an online newsletter; and other personal contacts at camps.

Staff Retention

On the survey, I asked how camps staffed their kitchens (which would often depend on the number of campers). I discovered three basic differences in staffing:

  1. 8 of 26 respondents — “Cooks do all kitchen duties.”
  2. 9 of 26 respondents — “Summer staff helps with prep work and dishes.”
  3. 9 of 26 respondents — “Additional help is hired solely for prep work and dishes.”

As we learn how other camps staff their kitchens, we may examine our own practices for efficiency’s sake.

As you can see above, nearly three-quarters of camps either hire additional kitchen-only staff or bring summer camp staff in to help with salad bar preparation, beverage making, etc. After the meal, these invaluable employees complete dishwash¬ing, cleaning floors, and trash removal. Allowing cooks to focus only on what they love and do well — and preventing them from the “wear and tear” of clean-up chores after hours — could boost retention. That is just one strong benefit to these two models of kitchen staffing.

Directors may choose to staff a certain model for various reasons. Per survey results, guest number is the driving factor for staffing models. Smaller camps generally employ cooks for all kitchen duties, and large camps with greater camper numbers rely heavily on summer staff for support chores. It could be argued that smaller camps use the services of only cooks to cut the staff wage pool, while larger camps might be more concerned with efficiency — smooth transitions between meals — and less concerned with labor costs.

Increasing Costs

Survey results show the two greatest factors that have increased costs in recent years are food cost increases and staff wages.

Food Costs

Twenty-four out of twenty-six surveyed listed this as the number one factor impacting food service costs within the past few years. Corresponding statistical evidence by the USDA confirms recent food price increases, showing a surge in the fourth quarter of 2011 that was greater than the expectations of the USDA. By the end of 2012, the Consumer Price Index for all foods is predicted to increase 2.5–3.5 percent. Although this average falls within the annual historical norm, the unexpected fall 2011 hike, coupled with the usual 2–3 percent average increase, means that food prices are and will be slightly higher by percentage than in recent years.

According to the USDA (2012), the top five highest percentage increases by category in 2011 were:

  1. Beef and Veal (A monstrous 10.9 percent increase)
  2. Fats and Oils
  3. Eggs
  4. Meats
  5. Pork

Staff Wages

Eight of twenty-six camp respondents affirmed that the increase in staff wages is also a cause of cost increases. National averages for civilian workers documented by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics support this trend, with a twelve-month average of a 1.7 percent increase in wages and salaries from March 2011 to March 2012.

Special Needs Diets

The top two special diet requests at camps surveyed were gluten-free diets and vegetarian diets, respectively.

Gluten-Free Diets

  • 22 of 26 survey respondents indicated that a gluten-free diet is the number one requested special diet.
  • 1 of 26 indicated it was the second most requested special diet.

How to Accommodate Gluten-Free Needs at Camp

In order to offer the best camp experience to those campers with celiac disease, consider the following tips to find the secret of your success:

  • Train your staff.
  • Prepare your kitchen.
  • Enlist a professional to teach your staff specifics of the gluten-free diet. Possible resources include a registered dietician, a celiac disease organization, your state health department, or your food service company/representative. After gluten-free-specific training, your staff should be familiar with the cross-contamination issue of foods with gluten and ready to prepare a storage area for gluten-free foods.
  • Determine your resources. Some learning tools for food managers include your food service company, local health food store, and written resources such as online recipe sites, blogs, and books.
  • Determine your cooking strategy. Premade frozen? Freshly made in your kitchen? A blend of both? What you choose will depend on camper numbers, the gluten-free cooking experience of your staff, recipes you can trust, and your time allowance. Special food costs may also be a deciding factor. However, some food reps are willing to give samples of prepared products.
  • Establish gluten-free recipes. Most special diet recipes from online resources or books will require using a recipe conversion chart for serving number increases, so it is best to prepare ahead of time.
  • Establish a meal plan. How much of your meal should be standard fare, and how much should be gluten free? You might prepare an entree or dessert each meal to meet all needs.

Download a Recommended "Tear-Out" List of Gluten-Free Foods

Vegetarian Diets

  • 20 of 26 survey respondents indicated it was the second most requested special diet.
  • 3 respondents indicated vegan diets are also highly requested.

A Vegetarian Times study calculates that 7.3 million Americans are vegetarians. Additionally, 22.8 million adhere to a “vegetarian-inclined diet.” According to the study, many people choose vegetarianism for improvement of health, natural gain of wellness, environmental or food-safety concerns, animal welfare, and weight issues. Statistically, approximately 1 million vegetarians are also vegans, who consume no animal products at all (Vegetarian Times, 2008).

Vegetarians rely upon plant-based foods for whole nutrition, thus, we must be conscientious to offer plant foods that meet needs for protein. An easy way to do this is to provide legumes, beans, and nuts. Facilitating vegan needs is more challenging and may require specific lists from guests for meal ideas. Finding a reliable resource such as a dietician is recommended if you are not familiar with a vegan diet. A simple starter resource from Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health can be found at www.vegetariannutrition.org/food-pyramid.pdf.

Penning a Policy for Special Needs Diets

Involve camp administration in decision making about special needs diets in your food service. Confirm feasibility of each type of special needs diet requested. Does your camp have the staff it needs to accommodate special diets in addition to your usual meal offerings? In policy making, consider the extra staff person you bring in solely for food preparation of special diets, if you do not plan on integrating special diet foods into the menu for the guests. Will cost play so much of a factor that the camp needs to up-charge for certain diets or all special needs diets? Whatever your policy is, it is imperative that you put it in your contract, registration forms, etc. Be certain your health information form has a place to list special diets and any reaction to food allergies.

Food service managers should commu¬nicate with parents so that there is nothing lost in translation and all needs are met. Some camps have “bring your own food” policies for certain diets or “deal with it” policies for others — for example, offering only a salad bar for vegetarians. Will we offer true customer service if this is our mentality? I think not; and I believe we should make a way to meet special dietary needs through solid planning and policies.


Camp food service today is uniquely different than it was ten years ago. Staff retention, rising costs, and new challenges in diet bring new dynamics. May we educate ourselves as well and rise to the challenge!

Celiac Disease: An Overview

What does gluten-free mean? Individuals who are on strict gluten-free diets, per doctor’s orders, have been diagnosed with celiac disease. National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse defines celiac disease as permanent intolerance to the glutens in wheat proteins, barley, and rye; binding agents in some medicines; and miscellaneous food ingredients. This digestive auto-immune disease interferes with absorption of food nutrients and damages the small intestine (2012). Celiac disease among the American population has now reached 3 million people (Turbin, 2011).


The Great Gluten Escape: A Model for Camps

“The Great Gluten Escape (GGE) Camp was started by two high school sopho¬more Girl Scouts, Grace St. Clair and Tara Piles, for their Girl Scout Gold Award in 2005. Along with Kelly LeMonds, area chapter leader of the Dallas ROCK (Raising Our Celiac Kids) support group, and Cheryl Gainer, head of Lonestar GIG support group, they organized, promoted, and executed the first camp,” says Jamie St. Clair, camp director of GGE. “Seventeen gathered at All Saints Camp. After the GGE Camp nonprofit corporation was founded to support the camp, subsequent GGE camps were held at Camp Gilmont, beginning in June of 2006.”

“When GGE started, the phrase ‘gluten free’ was rarely heard or seen in grocery stores. Most kids searched health food stores for gluten-free products.” Jamie contin¬ues, “Only two camps in the nation offered gluten-free foods; so for many campers, attending camp meant bringing their own food for the week and eating isolated from all other campers — something these kids dealt with every day at school, birthday parties, etc. Several campers said ‘I thought I was the only person in the world with celiac disease until I came to camp!’ Our campers gain a great peer support system of other kids who also deal with daily peer pressure. They stay in contact with each other all year and are very excited to see each other at camp! ”For a list of “dangerous” foods and ingredients, visit www.celiac.com/articles/182/1/Unsafe-Gluten-Free-Food-List-Unsafe-Ingredients/Page1.html.

For lists such as GGE’s sample summer camp menu inventory and school lunch menu “safe foods” for celiac disease, visit http://campgilmont.org/kitchen-resources.

Additional Resources

  • American Celiac Disease Alliance. (2012). What is celiac disease? Retrieved from http://americanceliac.org/celiac-disease/
  • Celiac Disease Foundation Web site is an excellent source of information: www.celiac.org/
  • Celiac Sprue Association Website is an excellent source of information written by celiacs: www.csaceliacs.info/
  • Dahlstrom, C., Burnley, E., & Dahlstrom, M. (2011). Gluten-free made simple. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Hasselbeck, E. (2012). Deliciously g-free. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
  • General Mills. (2012). Betty Crocker gluten free cooking. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • PubMed Health. (2010, January 20). Celiac disease — sprue. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001280/
  • Raymond, C. (2003). Student’s vegetarian cookbook, revised: Quick, easy, cheap, and tasty vegetarian recipes. New York, NY: Clarkson Potter.
  • VegSource. (2012). In the news . . . . Retrieved from www.vegsource.com/articles/veg_definition.htm


National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (2012). What is celiac disease. Retrieved from http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/#what

Turbin, T. (2011). Celiac disease prevalence is on the rise. Retrieved from www.celiac.com/articles/22676/1/Celiac-Disease-Prevalence-is-on-the-Rise/Page1.html

United States Department of Agriculture. (2012). Food price outlook, 2012: Changes in food price indexes, 2010 through 2012. Retrieved from www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-price-outlook/summary-findings.aspx

United States Department of Labor. (2012). Employment cost index news release text. Retrieved from www.bls.gov/news.release/eci.nr0.htm

Vegetarian Times. (2008). Vegetarianism in America. Retrieved from www.vegetariantimes.com/article/vegetarianism-in-america

Kimberly Truitt is the food service director at Camp Gilmont in Gilmer, Texas. She is a member of Camping Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Committee and lives with her husband, Thomas, and their two boys, Harrison and Benjamin.

Originally published in the September/October 2012 Camping Magazine.