Camp-grown Food Service Staff: Leading and Cooking with Gumption

by Viki Kappel Spain, MEd

Camp food service and other directors would benefit exponentially from implementing a "gumption-growing" mantra in their food service operation — the idea that camps can teach gumption (the ability to take initiative) as part of an esteem-building model. This can be a shot of positive thinking for food staff that helps them realize and verbalize their personal abilities and limitations (Howard & Howard, 2014).

To teach gumption intentionally results in "resiliency under pressure," according to Dr. Thecla Howard and Anthony Howard in their Camping Magazine article "Gumption Grown Here: How Adventure Camps Help Adults and Youth to Toughen." In the camp food service arena this begins with thinking positively, never talking negatively, and embracing the fun in friendly competition in the face of repeated exposure to the stresses associated with meal schedules and the need to produce high-quality meals on time. For example, turn a sometimes tiring task such as cracking large quantities of raw eggs into a fun yet engaging competition between staff members. Not only will the task get completed in a timely manner, but it will give individual staff members the opportunity to improve their speed and hand-eye coordination, as well as contribute to the overall success of production.

The food service operation would do well to adopt a code of conduct based on keeping the peace and solving problems that provides clear-cut guidelines for how to act under pressure and communicate with one another. If food service staff are hired and trained together under this code, a more cohesive and highly functioning team will emerge.

As for leadership qualities, the food service director should model to the best of his or her ability the essential elements for being an effective leader:

  • Teach/train/retrain as the knowledgeable resource leader.
  • Supervise all aspects of the operation, correcting behaviors and adapting to changing situations.
  • Understand human limits — physical and emotional — and recognize when the staff have reached personal fatigue or burnout limits, taking action to support their overall health and well-being.
  • Be aware that communication is the linchpin that connects all the players in the food service environment (communication is also critical between the food service director and the camp director, program director, and medical director). Communication happens on many levels, from formal staff meetings to notes scribbled on sticky-notes about having 20 less people at an upcoming meal or a reminder to add rock salt to the food order for a cabin group wanting to make ice cream.

To begin and retain an atmosphere that fosters gumption, the entire line-up of staff, from the food service director to the food service assistant, needs to adopt an "open exchange" concept of learning — otherwise known in the food service arena as the we-train, you-learn/you-train, we-learn environment. A newly hired, 18-year-old food service assistant, with or without previous training, will face a steep learning curve at first, but he or she will also find an opportunity to share new ideas or practices based on previous experience or even ingenuity. Learning can be achieved along all points on the employee spectrum. The teaching in any food service operation is not limited to the individuals with the most training — and lessons may very well come from the one person you least suspect has an idea for a process improvement.

When a new member of the food service operation is given the opportunity to contribute during a group preparatory meeting, a daily/weekly staff discussion, or even in a nonwork setting around the campfire, that individual feels a strong sense of value as part of the team. This is not to say that the food service director should allow new staff to dictate their own tasks without having to demonstrate an appropriate skill level first. Many camp and food service directors have been swept up by a prospective staff member's amazing interview skills. Anyone can watch a food preparation video a hundred times and regurgitate the "foodspeak" to impress an extremely hopeful director who is trying to fill a food service position.

Remember the old adage, "the proof is in the pudding." A person may be able to verbally describe making a fabulous recipe with all the necessary ingredients, but the proof of a quality cook is in the physical action of creating the dish. Even if an interviewee is on the other side of the world, technological advances make it easy for administrative leaders to watch a live demonstration.

A good leader commands an operation through teaching, training, and retraining, and by governing key elements of the food service community environment. Strong leadership practices established prior to the arrival of campers, such as during staff training, can help directors and staff alike recognize things like mid-summer burnout and react compassionately by making adjustments, and accommodations, and implementing new requests/requirements from parents, campers, or staff.

Good, clear communication between all management team members is essential to make food services at camp run well. Prior to any special food service accommodations being made for anyone included in the staff-to-camper spectrum, a policy on dealing with the multitude of issues that can arise should be already firmly in place, such as identifying the number of campers and staff with special food needs and smooth handling of food change requests.

As the food service staff community continues to grow and band together — as well as show positive signs of healthy learning and teaching within the confines of time and budget — the pivotal element to continued success is clear: persistent, two-way communication.

Howard, T. & Howard, A. (2014, July/ August) Gumption grown here: How adventure camps help adults and youth to toughen. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from adults-and-youth-toughen

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