"Junk food” is a term we often use to describe highly processed or ultra-processed food that likely has “many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. '

Ultra-processed foods are made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats,” according to Harvard Health Publishing. “They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers.” (McManus, 2020). In other words, junk food is full of chemicals and empty calories.

And kids eat a lot of it.

In fact, “Kids and teens in the US get the majority of their calories from ultra-processed foods like frozen pizza, microwavable meals, chips, and cookies” (Nuñez, 2021). Indeed, junk food is a cultural mainstay both inside and outside of camp.

Parents send their kids to camp with bags of candy, sneak candy into care packages, and bring candy on visiting day — as well as potato chips, easy prep macaroni and cheese, microwavable noodles, and other highly processed foods.

Processed food is generally cheap, flavorful, and attractive to kids. For these reasons, typical camp menus are filled with chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, hot dogs, and sometimes food that is so highly processed it’s hard to tell what exactly is being served.

According to a study published in the medical journal JAMA, “Two-thirds — or 67 percent — of calories consumed by children and adolescents in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods, a jump from 61 percent in 1999. The research, which analyzed the diets of 33,795 youths ages 2 to 19 across the US, noted the ‘overall poorer nutrient profile’ of the ultra-processed foods” (Nuñez, 2021).

A 2019 National Institutes of Health study “found that a diet filled with ultra-processed foods encouraged people to overeat and gain weight compared to diets that consist of whole or minimally processed foods” (Nuñez, 2021).

In addition to the increased risk of obesity, junk food consumption can also lead to:

  • Cardiovascular problems
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Dental cavities
  • Depression
  • Skin problems (Fortis Healthcare, 2020)

As a camp director and mother, I struggle with why the camp industry has embraced a love for candy and other junk food the way it has. When my daughters were younger — when I worked at camp but before I became a camp codirector — and they saw desserts and colorful candy being served, I told them, “That is for the campers. We have food at our cabin.”

I distinctly remember somebody asking me how I was going to handle it when my girls became campers themselves. My response: “I hope that by then I will have more of a say in the food at camp.”

I cut it close. My older daughter spent her first summer as a camper in 2022, which was also my first summer as a camp director.

No, our campers didn’t eat cauliflower for dessert at camp last summer. (This is the joke my husband makes each night as he asks our kids if they want cauliflower or broccoli for dessert.) We certainly had ice cream, cookies, brownies, and even candy. While the long-term goal is to make everything from scratch and source more organic and local ingredients, this will take time. But we need to find a balance and moderation — in all aspects of life.

Last summer we took a step in the right direction by eliminating artificial colors, making foods from scratch whenever possible, and serving fewer dessert foods. We always had fresh fruit and milk available. We took a close look at our overall camp programming so that kids didn’t end up with canteen visits, dessert after a meal, and an evening activity that involved sweets all on the same day. We did, however, maintain the sweet memory (pun intended) and invaluable experience of roasting marshmallows around the campfire and making s’mores.

My codirector, Jolly, often reminds me that we can’t eat a whole pizza without first cutting it into slices, and we can only eat one piece at a time. Together, we are implementing changes to our camp menu with the understanding that we cannot turn into a farm-to-table camp overnight.

Last summer our oatmeal bar was well received by campers and staff alike. Topping choices included raisins, dried apricots, coconut, granola, and brown sugar. We served fresh fruit juices (with no added sugar) such as a blueberry lemonade that the campers loved. Other popular snacks included hummus with carrots, string cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, trail mix, banana bread, and smoothies.

Children are often willing to taste a wider variety of foods at camp than they would at home. To everyone’s surprise, we had campers go home and tell their parents that they loved eating fish tacos, meatloaf, Israeli salad, grilled watermelon, falafel, and French dip sandwiches! Our goal was to serve a rainbow of healthy food choices each day so that children (and adults) at camp had the opportunity to fuel their bodies with food that made them feel energized and strong as they enjoyed active summer days.

As a sleepaway camp, we are responsible for feeding our campers all of their meals and snacks for seven weeks. We want our campers to enjoy the fun and excitement of camp with their friends — like one long slumber party. But if we feed them junk food and dessert for seven weeks, we are doing them a disservice both in the short and long run.

At camp we focus on mental and physical wellness, relationship building, independence, decision-making, and, again, fun. We want campers to enjoy carefree days of childhood in a safe and happy place. And we have a great opportunity and responsibility to be leaders and role models for children by helping them to create healthy routines. Camp is an ideal place to teach young children to make good choices.

This year the news is finally talking about just how bad processed foods are for our health. A bill passed in California banning red dye and other chemicals that appear in popular candies and snack foods. Many of the artificial ingredients in our foods are linked to hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children as well as neurological issues, reproductive concerns, autoimmune diseases, obesity, cancer, and a range of other adverse health effects. Notably, these ingredients are banned in other countries while in our country they are still used in foods advertised directly to children (Babineau & Rogers, 2023).

The camp industry has always been a leader in creating healthy and safe experiences for children. We teach children about community, skill development, leadership, character-building, personal growth, and healthy living.

As camp directors, we have the opportunity to lead toward something that is undeniably beneficial for children. Why wait for regulations to change? Why not be the leaders that we teach our children to be?


Babineau, A. & Rogers, K. (2023, March 24). California bill aims to ban sale of popular candies containing ingredients that may cause health issues. CNN. cnn.com/2023/03/23/health/red-dye-no-3-bill-cancer-risk-wellness/index.html

Fortis Healthcare. (2020). Harmful effects of junk food. Fortis Mumbai. fortismumbai.com/blogs/harmful-effects-of-junk-food

McManus, K. D. (2020, January 9). What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health? Harvard Health Publishing. health.harvard.edu/blog/what-are-ultra-processed-foods-and-are-they-bad-for-our-health-2020010918605

Nuñez, X. (2021, August 11). If you think kids are eating mostly junk food, a new study finds you’re right. NPR. npr.org/2021/08/11/1026816658/study-us-kids-diet-ultraprocessed-junk-food

Cori Daniels is codirector of Camp Robindel in New Hampshire, where she had her first experience as a camper at the age of eight.