Change is often difficult for the thousands of camps and conference centers across the country to embrace, partly because many camps are steeped in tradition, and partly because of fear. The camp food service industry has been serving up hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, chicken nuggets, bug juice, cake mixes, pre-baked breads, and, of course, s'mores for too long. Now is the time for camp directors and food service directors to embrace the movement toward healthier food options.

Some camp professionals have commented on Facebook® and other chat groups that camps need to find healthier replacements for sugary traditions. This is a valid argument, but changes in this regard should be made in phases rather than removing all lesshealthy food offerings at once. Age-old camp traditions around food can be bonding experiences for generations of campers and could cause a mutiny if messed with. So choosing what to change and when is key.

For example, an attendee of the annual Camp Food Service Conference in New York shared that she has made 400 cinnamon rolls from scratch every week at summer camp for more than twenty years. Obviously, it would be a harsh change to remove such a favorite and anticipated item from the menu. It is better to keep such a cultural expectation and make concessions by adjusting other foods and ingredients than cause serious upheaval.

Camp directors could spend a week sitting at computers researching different programs that point out the multitude of dangers of eating almost anything offered in the American diet. The focus and responsibility still remains for camp directors to choose what's best for individual camps and food service operations.

What Does "Healthy" Mean at Camp?

Although every individual has a different idea of what healthy food is, the important concepts for camp directors to embrace and attempt can begin with the following foods, ingredients, and other offerings. Remember, take baby steps toward change.

How to "Healthy-ize" Existing Camp Foods

  • Pancakes: Add buckwheat or other hearty, whole-grain flours to improve not only the nutritional value, but also to provide the staying power given by lower glycemic index foods (the lower a food's glycemic index, the less it affects blood sugar and insulin levels, according to Harvard Health Publications) (2008). See the Resources sidebar for websites and more information regarding glycemic index.
  • Coffeecake: Use half the amount of the sugar-butter-cinnamon topping than normally used; add fresh apples cooked down.
  • Replace or reduce white sugar with raw or natural sugar, or use honey. Also, use fruits, because they have healthier levels of fructose.
  • Reduce or replace butter with an unsaturated oil, such as olive oil. (One caution here: This substitution can change the texture of some foods, so use the oil only if it won't create a substantial, rejectable change.)
  • Reduce salt: One way to reduce sodium levels in foods served at camp is to remove salt shakers from the tables, or at least replace regular table salt with sea salt.
  • Milk: Serve nonfat milk or 1 percent milk.
  • Syrups and fruit toppings: Make your own maple syrup without using corn syrup. Make your own fruit compotes and berry toppings by cooking down fresh or frozen berries.
  • Salad bar: Offer a salad bar option at every lunch and/or dinner. Use spinach and dark-green, leafy lettuces as part of the salad mix, and try to avoid iceberg lettuce. The darker the green leaf, the higher the vitamins.
  • Spaghetti sauce: Make your own with canned diced tomatoes (check the label to ensure no high-fructose corn syrup or sodium has been added), olive oil, garlic, onions, and other desired ingredients, such as herbs and spices. The easy way to add healthy ingredients without campers knowing (check for allergies to these ingredients first) is to pulse in a food processor fresh mushrooms, spinach, and other healthy vegetables.

Getting Back to Scratch Cooking

Another option that camp food service operations can consider in their effort to become healthier is to make more foods from scratch. Opening cans of premade chili or beans may be quick, but those items can be made from scratch very easily and for a much lower cost. Many naysayers of replacing cans with scratch cooking present the labor issue as their concern. Planning ahead and time management are the key issues to being successful with making anything from scratch. A food service operation can use the same number of staff and still be able to create cheaper and healthier options. For example, beans can be soaked the night before and ready for cooking the next morning.

An important issue to consider regarding scratch cooking is equipment. To make bread and many other scratch items, a kitchen would need an appropriate-sized mixer and a proper number of ovens and pans for the number of campers being fed. Although additional labor is involved in baking your own bread, with skilled staff and good planning, the results are worth it. Even though the bread or other yeast dough process takes three to four hours from start to finish, the time waiting can be used for prepping other items for the meal.

Some camps have full-time bakers who bake all the breads, muffins, cakes, cookies, brownies, cinnamon rolls, coffeecakes, and the plethora of other incredible desserts and baked goods that are offered. Many food service operations have been quite successful in obtaining whole-grain flours that are less processed, using whole grains and seeds in the baked items, as well as using natural sugars, less fat, and reducing the amount of sodium. Some of this potential success is dependent upon the availability of healthy ingredients from the camp's food service distribution company. Many of the popular purveyors offer whole grain and whole wheat hamburger buns, hot dog buns, and pizza dough, among other items.


Another element of global change that camp food service operations can consider is the farm-to-table concept. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are two million farms in the U.S., and more than 80 percent are small, individually or family-owned farms (2009). LocalHarvest, a nonprofit collective of local, organic farms, reports that many new small-farm collectives are cropping up all over the country, responding to the intense demand for fresh, locally grown, and/or organic foods, and many offer delivery to surrounding areas. For more information on farms that might be delivering healthy, locally grown food options in your camp's area, visit LocalHarvest's website:

Sustainable Food

Based on the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990, the USDA characterizes sustainable food "as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that meet America's need for food and fiber and enhance the natural resources that food growing depends upon (2009).

John Turenne, owner and founder of Sustainable Food Systems (http:// based in New England and keynote speaker at the Camp Food Service Conference in March, suggests that camps interested in finding local farms contact their state's department of agriculture. To receive updates on sustainable programs in the U.S. (and around the world), interested camp professionals can follow the Sustainable Food Systems Facebook page.

Plant the Seeds Slowly

Whether overseeing year-round or summer-only food service operations, the challenge for all camp staff is to choose one or a few "seeds" of change toward healthier eating and implement them slowly — allowing them to be incorporated into the camp's food service operation with flexibility and compromise.

In order for camps to embrace and adopt change, they need the support of all staff — including all directors, board members, food service assistants, program staff, and counselors. Help start a new healthy camp food movement by choosing one thing as simple as using only dark-green, leafy lettuces, wholegrain bread products, or using nonfat milk and dressings to make a positive change. You can help your camp family make good food choices by offering good food choices.

Recipe for Success
Tip Include all camp staff in exploring alternative foods for a healthier, tastier, and locally supportive food service program. By soliciting all staff's input and suggestions, you will make them individually and collectively more aware of how bulk foods are produced, processed, and transported. This is an opportunity for your entire staff, including food service, to take ownership and pride in a cooperative operation.

To learn more about healthy food and healthy food sources, check out the following: — Provides newly released special health reports from Harvard Medical School. — This organization has local and small, familyoperated farms near camps and towns all over the country. Type in the desired city and/or state, and the website will provide a listing of all available farms in that area.

Harvard Health Publications. (2008). Retrieved from Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_ for_100_foods.htm. LocalHarvest. (2009). Family farms. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2009). Sustainable agriculture: Definitions and terms. Retrieved from terms/srb9902.shtml#toc1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2009). Ag 101: Demographics. Retrieved from demographics.html.

Viki Kappel Spain, MEd, is an author, consultant, and speaker, and has been cooking in the camp industry since 1985. She is an active member of the ACA Northern California Field Office and presents at ACA and other agency conferences, featuring essential information in the camp food service arena. Her e-mail address is and her website is

Originally published in the 2014 September/October Camping Magazine.