Kids Camping Takes the Challenge! :Use healthy messages to make the camp experience AWE-some!

by Vickie L. James, R.D., L.D. and Claudia L. Hohnbaum, M.A., R.D., L.D.
Dear diary, I just got home from camp and I feel so good about myself! I met so many new friends, had fun swimming, singing camp songs around the campfire, and making cool crafts. But, this year, camp was different, even better than most summers. This year at camp I took the Challenge!

Camping EVEN BETTER than most summers? What was this young camper referring to? This story begins with Carrie Schroyer, director of Chalk Hills Camp, a camp of the Fox River Area Girl Scout Council, located one hundred ten miles north of Appleton, Wisconsin, on the Menominee River. Chalk Hills Camp prides itself in offering a variety of camping experiences for the campers, ranging from the introductory program for day campers, to specialty sessions featuring science, theatre, art, or adventure camping, to a very specialized wilderness trip program. "We try to offer a progression in all our programming so girls will come back year after year and continue to be challenged each summer," explains Schroyer. The beautiful habitat that nature offers this campsite, combined with the dedicated staff, some forty members strong, offers an outstanding camp experience for Girl Scouts. So what kind of improvements was Chalk Hills Camp seeking?

Let’s begin with an entry from my journal. I'm Vickie L. James, a registered dietitian and the national director of Healthy Kids Challenge (HRC), a school- and community-based health initiative that has as its mission to provide an adaptable school/community approach to educate, motivate, and link kids and adults (KidLinks) to make healthy living a habit.

"Today I received an e-mail from a Girl Scout camp director wanting to know if Healthy Kids Challenge could go to camp. I was reminded of the HKC philosophy of taking healthy messages not only to schools, but everywhere kids live, learn, and play. What a great place to increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity, the camp experience! I know it's time to take Healthy Kids Challenge to camp!"

What is Healthy Kids Challenge and what is our match to kids camping? Healthy Kids Challenge is a nonprofit foundation that assists elementary schools and programs with increasing healthy eating and activity opportunities for kids and their families. We have developed an award-winning program with our KidLink concept that focuses not only on healthy messaging for kids, but, also for all who are connected with kids. Healthy Kids Challenge, created by Cooking Light in 1998, developed from a one-week, one-school trial in 1998-99, to a four-school pilot in 1999-2000, to over 600 schools/programs on board at the end of school year 2000-2001. Today over 700 schools/programs in thirty-three states, Australia, Japan, British Columbia, and Canada, are now Taking the Challenge.

Healthy Kids Challenge revolves around two primary concepts.

  1. Healthy change is led by a KidLink team — KidLinks is a leadership team of people who connect with kids and have the opportunity to influence choices that kids make with eating and activity. Key KidLinks include school administrators, teachers, school meal staff, families, community partners, and kids themselves.
  2. Make the healthy changes AWE-some Change — Healthy Kids Challenge helps link kids, schools, families, and communities for what we call AWE-some C.H.A.N.G.E!
     
      A Appealing and fun
      W Welcome and inviting
      E Easy and simple
      C Connect
      H Health
      A And
      N Needs
      G Get
      E Excited

That's where kids camping entered the Healthy Kids Challenge picture. Education of the child does not stop at the classroom door, but extends itself from school, to the home, and out into the community. After-school programs, intramurals, youth organizations, and yes, kids camps are jumping on the bandwagon, along with schools!

Read now from yet a third journal entry, that of Chalk Hills Camp director, Carrie Schroyer: "For several years now, one of our goals at camp has been to help girls feel more comfortable with who they are and how they look. We have challenged our staff to celebrate their own uniqueness, and to role model that satisfaction. ‘Fat talk’ is not allowed at our camp. After two years of no fat talk, it's time to step up and do even more to promote a healthy image! The Healthy Kids Challenge information appeared on the Web site and my wheels are turning!"

Through much long-distance correspondence, Healthy Kids Challenge was able to do a thorough review of the existing menus, snacks, activities, and classes offered at Chalk Hills Camp. Goals were set for healthy change for the campers, and for leadership provided during the camp experience.

Take the Challenge goals set for campers included:

  • Have fun.
  • Feel good about yourself.
  • Enjoy the meals and snacks.
  • Learn how to make healthy choices and create healthy habits.
  • Increase opportunities to practice healthy choices at camp.

Take the Challenge goals for leadership included:

  • Serve as role models for the campers.
  • Develop ownership for the healthy Challenge.
  • Develop a personal wellness plan.
  • Feel good about yourself and the campers.
  • Be motivated to develop and implement healthy messages through the camp experience.
  • Enjoy meals and snacks.
  • Offer feedback regarding camp changes.
  • Have fun.

What kinds of healthy change recommendations were made and what were the outcomes at Chalk Hills Camp? We started with the menu, where the focus in the past had been on cost savings, and ease of preparation, not healthy choices, variety, or balance. Soon, a two-week menu cycle evolved, with over sixty new healthy menu choices added, many being kid friendly versions of Cooking Light recipes — tasty, yet lighter in fat and sodium content than many existing camp recipes. Low fat ground turkey was substituted for part of the ground beef in main dish recipes; skim milk was offered instead of whole or 2 percent; more fresh fruits and veggies were added to the menu by adding a salad bar; and milk and water were substituted as the beverages of choice at meals instead of sugar-flavored drinks.

The menu challenges? The greatest challenge was young, very young, inexperienced cooks, with limited food purchasing, meal planning, or quantity food preparation skills. Making sure the food needed was on hand, planning time for all the necessary meal preparations, and then making sure the recipes were calculated to serve the correct number created new challenges in this kitchen. What was the key to successful healthy changes? Healthy Kids Challenge assistant director, Claudia Hohnbaum, M.A., R.D., L.D., and two Kansas State University dietetic students spent time at Chalk Hills Camp doing staff in-service that first week of camp. Read this journal entry, from the lead HKC trainer for the camp, Claudia Hohnbaum. "We started blazing new trails right away. From rolling up our sleeves to helping in the kitchen to encouraging the cook staff and helping the camp staff feel that they could lead the way to healthy change for the girls, this was the beginning of a big, but promising Challenge!" The success story is that the overall food budget for the camp was maintained while campers and staff alike shouted "yummy" and "awesome" to menu changes! While healthy, delicious entrees, such as Cheesy Chicken and Broccoli Potatoes and Barbecue Pizza Bites filled the stomachs of hungry campers and put smiles on their faces, hard work and the positive attitude of the young cook staff was the true key to the successful menu revamping.

The challenges didn't just stop with the menu cycle. Since snacks are a big part of the caloric intake of the camper, these too saw changes. Healthier choices, such as popcorn, raisins, cheese and crackers, and juice were added to the high sugar candy and soda options. This kept with the HKC philosophy that all foods can fit in a balanced Food Guide Pyramid. Frequency, portion sizes, and food/beverage choices were the lessons learned with snacking at camp.

One of the discoveries made with the HKC recommendations for healthy camp changes was that there were not as many physical activity opportunities at camp as most assume they would find with a camp experience. Schedules, time to get from one place to another, time spent with rules and directions, and many program activities not incorporating physical activity or movement were found to be the primary reasons for this. Without totally revamping the program schedule, how could more activity and movement be added to the schedule? More physical activity options were added during "me-time" such as movement activities at meal time, and the Trail to Good Health, a fitness/health trail, located in the center of camp where campers were encouraged to follow the trail to help build health-related awareness.

Following are a few of the Healthy Kids Challenge changes incorporated at Chalk Hills Camp this past summer:

  • Wellness Bulletin Board — A bulletin board dedicated to fun, healthy, eye-catching tips, ideas, and information. Located in the dining hall, often with camper healthy trivia quizzes.
  • Me-Times — More physical activity options offered during free time, focusing on fun and movement, not exercise as a goal.
  • Activity Challenge — Campers kept track of their activity on Challenge worksheets and were rewarded with wellness beads that signified the various levels of wellness they participated in including swimming, hiking, biking, and fun group game activities.
  • Chef Nutricia — Chef Nutricia visited camp meals to give campers health and nutrition tips in an entertaining, fun, and educational manner!
  • All-Camp Activities — Station activities for the entire camp that included physical activity and movement fun, as well as healthy eating and wellness trivia, tips, and weekly camp themes messages.
  • Take the Challenge Chain — Campers and staff made anonymous personal health goals. These were written on colorful strips of paper and strung together as a paper chain in the dining hall throughout the summer. Staff was encouraged to initiate discussion about the goals to encourage healthy choices becoming healthy habits.

What have been the lessons learned at Chalk Hills Camp in undertaking such bold, new steps for healthy camping for kids?

  • Small, simple, easy-to-implement steps for change are important so the process is not too overwhelming.
  • Staff in-service education and ownership is key to positive role modeling of healthy change.
  • Training of food service staff is essential when going from convenience, prepared items to requiring more knowledge of menu planning, ordering, and quantity meal preparation.
  • Building in support, recognition, and celebration of staff accomplishments makes change a "want to do."
  • Promoting healthy change to the families as well as the campers is a good way to link the camp experience to the home.
  • Kids will support healthy changes in their routine, including healthy eating, and physical activity if provided with the awareness, knowledge, choices, and decisions to do so.

And, a final diary entry from Schroyer, as she packs away the last camp belongings and prepares to go on a well-deserved vacation. "This first summer has been such a positive experience for all who attended Chalk Hills Camp and experienced the Healthy Kids Challenge. I really look forward to continuing the program next summer and making it even bigger and better. We appreciate the assistance, support, and encouragement provided by Healthy Kids Challenge. Staff noticed a definite difference in energy level, and job performance was top notch! Girls and staff both definitely benefited!"

A final journal entry from a young camper reads as follows: "I've learned to try new foods, found more ways to move and have fun with activity, and really, I just feel good about me!"

Healthy Kids Challenge wants to acknowledge the difference Chalk Hills Camp has made for kids in camping, and we challenge camps everywhere across the nation to Take the Challenge! Make a great camp experience AWE-some!

Vickie L. James and Claudia L. Hohnbaum are registered, licensed dietitians from Kansas, both with career-long efforts devoted to kids health issues, school/community health initiatives, and team-building techniques for healthy change. James is the national director of Healthy Kids Challenge, and Hohnbaum is the assistant director of HKC. As of this summer 2001, HKC is a freestanding nonprofit foundation that continues to dedicate itself to the following mission: "To provide an adaptable school/community approach to educate, motivate, and link kids and adults (KidLinks) to make healthy living a habit."

Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

Tags: