Penalizing Healthy Eating at Camp

If you have followed our blog for a while, you know that along our journey we have come across true food heroes and we have come across folks who talk about health, but who really don’t put that into practice. We’ve been through school fundraisers that directly contradict county policy about unhealthy foods and pleas to parents to make healthy post-game snacks. It is frustrating when the issue of childhood obesity and poor health outcomes for the next generation are everywhere, yet in some cases we keep making the same stupid mistakes over and over. I still can’t figure out if this is ignorance, laziness or apathy.

Summer camps are another area where we talk the talk of health, but where most of the time snacks and meals are pretty atrocious. Here is an article originally published on the Huffington Post by First Bites Founder Caron Gremont regarding how we punish or penalize families who want healthier choices.

What do you think about this?

Obesity Is Officially a Disease, So Why Was My Child Diagnosed as a ‘Healthy Eater’?

by Caron Gremont,

Today, the American Medical Association officially diagnosed obesity as a disease. So why is my daughter’s summer camp sending her to the nurse for being a “healthy eater”?

Next week, my 5-year-old daughter starts summer camp for the first time. As I sat in the parent orientation meeting, the camp director laid out the great activities she will do and reviewed some new data from the American Camp Association (ACA) on the benefits of camp for children. According to the ACA website, “building blocks of self-esteem are belonging, learning, and contributing. Camps offer unique opportunities for children to succeed in these three vital areas.”

It all sounded fantastic — until I saw the snack menu.

At 3:15 p.m. every day, the camp provides a “camp snack” to all the children (ages range from 5- to 15-years-old). Considering the children swim twice a day and have outdoor play as well as dance and sports almost daily, they need a snack that provides them with energy and carries them from lunch to dinner.

So what is the camp offering?

A daily choice of Oreos, Chips Ahoy, Nilla wafers, Cheese Curls, and potato chips. It’s not like the camp has never heard of fruit; they are serving watermelon or grapes once a week. Could they possibly think that these artificial, highly-sweetened, and highly-processed foods are filling, nutritious, and appropriate to serve growing children?

I talked to the head counselor, and explained that we try to eat “real food” that is both satisfying and nourishing, and I was worried about both the poor quality of the “food” they were serving as well as how little satisfaction it would actually provide. She sent me to the woman in charge of the snacks, who was very kind and sent me to the head of the camp, who was also understanding and sent me to camp nurse. The nurse said I could send in whatever snacks I wanted for my daughter. She would store them in her office, and my daughter could come and get them every afternoon. And my friend, whose daughter must follow a gluten-free diet, told me our children could come together to get their daily snacks!

And then it hit me: eating “healthy” snacks is being treated like a disease. The camp was very happy to accommodate our “special” needs and reassured me that with all the allergies today, our daughter wouldn’t be the only one eating a “special” diet.

My daughter doesn’t think her diet is “special.” To her, it’s normal. She eats a wide variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the day. She loves to snack on carrots, raw peppers and hummus, and no one has told her that this is “special.” What message does it send to tell my daughter that to eat “healthy food,” she needs to get her snack at the camp nurse every afternoon?

How ironic that a summer camp that is supposed to promote self-esteem and inclusiveness can do neither because a child has the rare affliction of wanting to eat healthily.

Yet in a country in which nearly one in three children is overweight or obese and in which French fries are considered a vegetable, it’s no wonder that the little girl who eats carrots and not cheese curls is “special.”

When I asked the head of my daughter’s camp if any other parent complained, I expected that there would be several. After all, this is a wealthy suburb outside a cosmopolitan city with more Whole Foods than Food Lions. But the camp director told me that only one or two parents a year comment on the camp menu.

We send our children to camp and trust that the counselors and lifeguards will keep them safe, from the pool to the buses used for field trips. Shouldn’t a camp also have an obligation to keep our children safe at the snack table? Singling out a child whose parents are trying to teach her to care for her body and eat real food makes my job, as her parent, much harder and doesn’t do much to support the efforts of other parents who may be trying and struggling to do the same. Given what we know about junk food, and its impact on our health, shouldn’t our summer camps — and schools — help normalize the eating of healthy food, not exclude a child from the group just because she prefers to snack on whole foods?

And it’s not that children won’t eat these foods. In the work that we do at First Bites, we have seen preschoolers learn and love to make healthy smoothies, try new fruit, and — yes — even eat their broccoli.

It’s that it’s the job of all of us — parents as well as schools, summer camps, and after-school programs — to set the example and offer the right choices to our kids. It may cost a little more than Chips Ahoy or be more of a hassle to cut a piece of fresh fruit, but it’s the price we will need to pay to tackle the real disease plaguing our kids, obesity.

6 responses

  1. This is a sad story. Unfortunately, its an all to common occurrence. Recently a friend was in charge of snacks at her church’s Vacation Bible School. The theme was Greece and she wanted to bring in healthy food options like hummus, pita, carrots, olives, etc. The VBS director objected that no one would eat “those snacks” and wanted her to use manufactured, store bought items. My friend still brought in the healthier snacks and many of the children loved them. It really starts with one person to begin the change. When enough single voices are heard, it can be thunderous.

  2. I agree… kind of.
    For me, summer camp was a special treat. I have no idea what we ate. I only remember camp-out s’mores. But since it was a special treat, junk food was totally allowed. My mom was always very healthy snack conscious at home. We were the only kids that ever packed giant granny smith apples and whole grain breads in our lunch boxes. My mom never allowed sugary cereal and instead of chips it was always nuts or pretzels. I am much the same way. But at a sleepover? I hope my kid eats 42 slices of junky take-out pizza (the stuff we never ever have at home) and a humongo ice cream sundae. I hope he has melty delicious s’mores to his heart’s content at summer camp. I hope he eats Oreos. Because camp is a treat. And in moderation none of it is gonna kill you. If my kids were at camp 5 days a week for a whole summer I’d probably be sending them apples and carrots all the way. But for just one week? Let it be full of junk. Detox later.

    • Thanks for your comments! I’m not sure the author was saying all food needs to be super healthy at camp–rather, she was making the point that if she wants to send a healthy snack for her daughter, couldn’t they just give her the healthy snack without making her an obvious source of drama? If “inclusiveness” and “belonging” are the camp missions, then they blew a really nice learning opportunity. The camp nurse is who you see if you’re throwing up. Or need your Ritalin. Baby carrots don’t seem to fit that level of medical need to me, but then I have never been a “camp nurse” so I have no idea what is in their job description. What bothers me most about the camp’s response is that it sets up a pretty lousy scenario for the child, who is now caught in the middle of her family’s values about food and the camp’s expectations about what is “normal” eating. She is 5 and she has to choose between disappointing her mom and looking like an oddball to her peers. A nicer way to approach it might have been to tell the mom that while the snack schedule is set, she is welcome to send her daughter with a healthy snack that she can eat with all the other children, but that she is welcome to have the provided snack if she chooses. The school nurse bit was unnecessary and (I am making a judgement here based on my own experience with the school system) possibly a bit retaliatory against the parent. Hard to know since we only get one side from the article, but bucking the system is one sure way to get talked about as a parent.

      Personally, I love s’mores, and I think that if you give children a filling meal to eat, treats are fabulous, especially when they are experiential. S’mores involve a community of kids, gathered around a soothing and hypnotic fire, learning to do some primitive cooking for themselves and making their own treat. And I’ve never known even the most voracious teenage girl to eat more than two s’mores–they are so rich. Same goes for campfire monkey bread or Dutch oven campfire cake or making sleepover sundaes. I guess I see that differently than putting bags of potato chips out on tables for hungry campers before supper–there’s no learning, no community, and from a purely practical standpoint, it would take a LOT of chips to fill up a hungry child. Still, even if my preferences are different than another parents’, our kids should all be able to eat what they want and sing Kumbaya around the same table. Without a doctor’s note 🙂

    • Tx! You bring up some GREAT points–we can’t be so consumed with food control that we leave the fun out of life. And I will rationalize S’mores til the end of time 🙂 Hope this week is better for you all–still thinking of you.

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