Home from Camp: Back to School

We have heard a lot about what school districts are doing to improve and update (or not) school lunches.  Schools are not the only ones improving meal time for kids.  I recently asked, Lucy Norvell of the American Camp Association, New England what is going on in the kitchens and dining halls at camp these days.

Camp food from canned to farm fresh.
Camp food from canned to farm fresh.

Leah’s Life (LL): In New England, summer foods are the things that dreams are made of from fresh berries, to fragrant herbs, and juicy sun kissed tomatoes.  Traditionally, camp food has not really reflected the season’s harvest.  What are camps doing today to change that?

Lucy Norvell (LN): Camps are now in a position to include the season’s harvest, despite New England’s short growing season. Camps have gardens where campers can harvest vegetables. Even if the camp doesn’t grow enough to feed everyone, they note for their campers what is coming from the camp garden, whether herbs or veggies. There is a camp that grows produce for a local food bank, for instance. It’s common to grow veggies for the salad bar or pizza toppings. Sometimes there are berry bushes in the camp where campers can pick berries to put into pancakes, onto salad, into desserts or over ice cream; other times camps take children to local farms to do berry picking as a program activity. Camps also offer cooking as programming. So campers can work with fresh ingredients whether or not they have been grown at the camp.

LL: Generations of families have memories of camp.  There are traditions that are carried on from year to year that each generation savors and shares.  Camp food is definitely not one of them.  What did camp meals look like in past generations? 

LN: This is a complicated question and should be answered by members of those previous generations. If you have time I can ask some of them and do a little research. There may be certain traditional meals that are still served at the camp—perhaps a favorite dessert of the founder or first director. Birthdays and the fourth of July present some great opportunities to follow certain traditions. I know a camp that has the chef create twelve sheet cakes for the camp birthday—one for campers and staff of each birthday month.


Berries and watermelon are big on the 4th of July just like in the real world. Also cookout food. How far back that dates I’m not sure.

LL: What has brought about the change in focus on camp food?

LN: Camps reflect changes that are happening in the world at large. Stand up paddle boarding is now a popular waterfront activity that coexists with canoeing in boats that are 100 years old. We now live in a society of foodies. Children watch the food channel and know quite a bit about food prep in some cases. Dining out is more common than 30 years ago with some families going out a few times a month. People are exposed to a wider array of food options.

LL: Have the sources of food changed? Are camps using more local produce?

LN: Camps are great neighbors. They definitely support local businesses. Many food service directors source as much food as possible locally. It can be win-win as the food only has to be transported down the road. Even camps that rely on large food service companies often have local sources of some of their food. In a pinch, all camps rely on the local supermarket. In the quantities that camps need, this can result in quite a sale.

LL: Have the cooks and chefs themselves changed?

LN: Camp food service has changed. Once, camps employed the chefs and kitchen staff directly. This model is still alive and well. There are several food service companies that provide all meals and employ all kitchen staff too. It’s a business decision as to which route is best for a camp.

LL: Does this affect the cost of camp?  Or has the cost simply shifted?

LN: This question has a sophisticated answer! Camps like families face higher costs in caring for children these days. The biggest line item in a camp budget is its staff, food is not far behind. There are many ways to keep costs down while retaining quality; camp food service professionals would have and owners and directors would have some interesting things to say on this topic. I know just who to put you in touch with to talk specifically about the decisions on sourcing food.


LL: An awareness of a variety of food allergies and intolerances has increased over the past several years, has this contributed to the shift in focus on food in camps?

LN: Families have to be increasingly aware of food allergies and intolerance and, therefore, so do camps. With each passing year, more and more campers (and staff) come to camp needing special diets. Restaurants have become more aware of cross contamination in recent years. Camp kitchens have too. I should also note that even camps that don’t have kitchens, that have campers bringing bag lunches to day camp, often have rules and procedures to keep campers safe at mealtime (lunch and snack time). An example of such a rule might be “NO sharing of food. Eat what YOU brought from home.”

LL: Do you have any childhood memories of camp dining?

LN: Lots of singing before and after meals. One camp I attended had campers wash dishes in buckets while singing after meals. Then the dishes went through a sanitizing machine.

LL: What were your most dreaded dishes?

LN: We have a small staff of six with two people representing each of three generations—millennial, GenX and Baby Boomer. So, we’re not quite a representative sample. But, we had the following dreaded camp meals: any sort of fish, taco casserole (with leftover taco meat), turkey dinner drowned in gravy, cold grilled cheese sandwiches and hot soup on a hot day, anything that was not easily identifiable.  Summarizing, it seems to me that in earlier days some of the unappealing stuff was unappealing when children couldn’t identify the ingredients in a dish—if it was a mystery casserole. Today, such ingredients are separated so children can take what they want. (For example a child could take a burrito with a little bit of seasoned meat and some tomatoes. But not onions, cheese or lettuce. Or a child can go to the salad bar and have cucumber slices and cherry tomatoes only while another child goes over and puts the equivalent of a salad on her turkey sandwich.)


LL: What was your favorite camp treat? 

LN: Popsicles, freezie pops, seven layer cookies, hand cranked homemade ice cream, white cake w/white icing and sprinkles, chocolate chip cookies and other fresh baked goods.

LL: What would a day of camp meals look like today?

LN:Breakfast: Something hot like oatmeal with raisins, craisins and other dried and fresh fruit and yogurt on the Breakfast Bar OR hard boiled eggs with salmon and tomatoes and bagels with cream cheese. Often cereal, yogurt and fresh fruit is out around the room or on a breakfast bar.


Lunch: Something hot like grilled cheese or a Panini or a make your own sandwich option. Wraps are popular. Salad bar. Peanut butter and jelly station, sometimes with other sandwich options. Last week a camp I visited was serving buffalo chicken breast pieces. I added that to my salad for protein. Fruit.


Dinner: Usually something hot. Lasagna or pasta dinner. Baked chicken and rice. Pizza. One camp I saw last week had homemade pizza crust and a real pizza oven. Salad bar. Sandwich option for those who don’t like the entrée selection. Dessert like ice cream sandwiches or cookies.


Oftentimes at overnight camp they leave snack food out all day—bowls of fresh fruit, healthy granola bars, etc… Camps also encourage everyone to be hydrated and they have some easy ways to fill water bottles and get water outside the dining hall.

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