Camp Food

I’m working volunteering on a pretty big project right now: Helping make summer camp food more nutritious.

This is not just any summer camp, mind you. It’s a place that’s incredibly dear to me. It’s impossible to put into just a few words how meaningful and special this place is, but I’ll say this: I did my growing up here. It’s my second home.

Camp Emerald Bay is a Boy Scout Camp on Santa Catalina Island, about 30 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The camp serves over 10,000 youth every year — about half of whom are Boy Scouts who come during the summer for a week.

Although it’s not all that far, it’s a world away from “The Mainland.” It’s a different way of life out here. When I visit, everything slows down for me a little, and the background noise just falls away. Last night, for example, I spent an hour simply watching a couple of pelicans gliding around the bay and crashing into the emerald-green water to scoop up their dinners.

I spent the summer of 1991 working here (my, how quickly those twenty years have passed!), and returned every summer for the rest of that decade.  I was the chairman of the Alumni association for the past six years, and nowadays I try to get out to the island at least one week every summer to volunteer and breathe in the eucalyptus-scented ocean air. I’m writing this post from a cabin that overlooks the bay, while listening to the gentle surf breaking on the beach and the playful shouts of Scouts frolicking in the water.

One of the core tenants of Scouting is physical fitness.  The Scouting program truly excels at getting boys away from their computers and video games and into the great outdoors.  Here at Emerald Bay, campers go kayaking, canoeing, sailing, rowing, swimming, SCUBA diving, mountain biking, hiking… basically, when the Scouts come out to camp for a week, they hardly ever stop moving.

The other half of the “physical fitness equation,” of course, is nutrition. Without the right fuel for your body, you can’t perform physical activities to your best; indeed, true physical fitness comes from a combination of both diet and exercise.

Early last year I started discussions with the camp management (who also happen to be some of my closest personal friends), with the goal of making the food more nutritious, fresher, and more healthful.

I had originally figured that getting management to “buy in” to the concept would be the hardest part. Turns out, that was the easiest — everyone quickly and enthusiastically jumped on board. The logistic challenges are where the real work begins.

During one Friday at camp last summer (over an ironic lunch of corn dogs, nachos, and applesauce), we convened an ad-hoc committee to write our “vision statement” for the food and nutrition at Emerald Bay. We whittled our vision down to one, succinct sentence:

Camp Emerald Bay is a leader in providing nutrition education and healthful, appealing food.

There are three core concepts in this vision:

First, that we’re a leader. We’re thinking bigger than just our own camp. This is one of the largest, most popular Scout camps in the country (I did mention that this place is awesome, right?). We’ve been operating since 1925, and have broken ground in many areas of Scouting (we created the Buddy System, for example, to help keep kids safe in the water). Our goal is to be so good at what we’re doing out here that the rest of the Scout camps in the country will follow suit. If we can do it on a desert island, we can do it anywhere.

Second, we’re not just focusing on the food we serve. We’re focusing on nutrition education. This isn’t going to become “fat camp” (ugh, what an awful phrase) — but without at least some nutrition information and positive messaging incorporated into our program (marketing!), our customers won’t understand what we’re doing, and we won’t have have a lasting impact.

Third, if the food doesn’t taste good, nobody’s going to eat it. Yes, this is obvious, but we need to ensure that our campers and staff are happy with both the taste and quality of the food.

This isn’t going to be easy, of course, but we all believe it’s totally doable.

The logistics are pretty intense:

We’re on an island.

We get our food delivered once a week.

We have a kitchen that was originally designed to serve around 300 people at at time. We now serve up to 850 meals at once, handing everyone a plate of food within about 30 minutes (we do leave plenty of time to eat and socialize — but we do our best to get everyone through the serving line as quickly as possible).

We have limited number of staff (hiring more people also means we have to house and feed them, which requires more money and more cabins). Also, everyone in camp management is already incredibly busy, of course, so there’s no full-time staff member who’s responsible for leading the charge and helping turn our goals into reality.

We have to keep our customers happy. If they don’t like the food, we’re not going to get anywhere. Camp is also supposed to be a fun, wonderful time, right? I certainly don’t want us to take that away; it’ll completely defeat the point of all of this!

Oh, and did I mention that there’s no extra room in the budget?

This summer, we’ve already started improving in small, but significant, ways. The wonderful folks at Attune Foods have been providing their Uncle Sam cereals to us at the same cost as the other, sugary cereals we offer — so at least we now have an additional, healthful breakfast option every morning. We’re also talking with Nature’s Path and Bob’s Red Mill about providing some of their products. We already have two salad bars, and have just ordered two more because they’e so popular. We’ve also increased the price of candy in the Trading Post, which has helped reduced the amount of candy being consumed.

So, where do we go next?  By the end of this week, I will have crafted a first draft of our nutrition policy statement. In it, I plan to outline our specific goals for the program, and how we want our meals to start looking. I’m going to be using the new My Plate icon as our touchstone. If we can start getting the food on our plates to be more aligned with that icon, we’ll be well on our way.

Do you have any experience in improving school or camp food? Are you a health-minded food manufacturer who would be interested in getting involved and helping out? Please leave a comment or email me!

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September 14, 2011 6:55 am

I direct/oversee about 25 retreats/camps a year for our conference. We will have anywhere from 100 to 400 attendees per camp. Some camps provide their own cook staff and we are subjected to what they will provide (non-negotiable, never clean, always bulk bought) and some of the others we are able to bring in our own volunteers (who while buying in bulk, always make clean, healthy, tasty food). How is it that my volunteers (moms and dads) can make amazing and healthy food when buying from the same big food suppliers that the other camp cooks buy from? I generally take all my own food to camps where we don’t have volunteers for our cooks. It saves me calories, health issues and keeps me eating clean and healthy. It’s a chore, but well worth it!

September 9, 2011 8:03 am

I was a girl scout for 12 years and my three brothers are all Eagle Scouts (I even went to cub scout camp as a kid!). Maybe there’s a way to do some pre-camp prep of fresh foods – canning, freezing, making homemade granola (may cost more though). Another option would be to have a camp cook-off (I know my brothers always participated in the Klondike derby – a series of skills tests (including cooking) completed in the snow – but even giving each team the task of creating a healthy, camping meal to be made only using a campfire and dutch oven or something. While I work in public health, I have a masters in nutrition and LOVE meal planning. Would love to toss ideas around if it helps you!

sarah henry
September 1, 2011 4:14 pm

Andrew, just penned my own post on icky camp food (will share later, goes live tomorrow) so was delighted to stumble across your post on the same subject. Go you. I don’t doubt you’ll make camp chow more wholesome and satisfying for these kids.

Jean Layton
Jean Layton
August 19, 2011 9:34 am

Love to think that adults can change the ways kids fuel up for a busy day. I wish I had gone to camp like this!
Can’t wait to see how you get the food healthier.

August 18, 2011 2:47 pm

Maybe talking to school cafeterias could help. Just read this article about one school that made major changes to their menus:

August 17, 2011 3:14 pm

Wow, I love what you are doing! I spent to summers working at Camp Emerald Bay on the waterfront and to be completely honest I had a difficult time eating the “camp” food. I love healthy eating and nutrition! I can’t wait to see the difference this is going to make for the scouts and staff. I love the fact that you are going to teach about nutrition as well.
I wish I could help! I’m looking forward to following this.

Mary Papoulias Platis-California Greek Girl

I have a love for Catalina as well, spending summers there with my best friend’s family – warm summer nights, fresh fish, being outdoors!
Being from a boy scout family- thanks for improving the campsite food and making their experience more productive.
I’ll be there in a few weeks, excited to be a kid again.

August 16, 2011 6:22 am

Kayaking, canoeing, sailing, rowing, swimming, SCUBA diving, mountain biking, hiking and someone prepares all of my meals for me? Where do I sign up?

Laura @ Family Spice
August 15, 2011 3:36 pm

You know scouting is dear to my family. This is incredibly awesome!! We are still in cub scouts but we make sure when we go camping as a pack, we make & share a healthy meal for dinner. Everyone is blown away how easy it is & the kids love it. You are doing a great project!

August 15, 2011 2:55 pm

This is great! I love Emerald Bay, I went to Catalina Island Camp just over the hill and once a week the whole camp would hike over to Emerald Bay to hang out on the beach. It was gorgeous! Much better than our beach. 🙁

It’s funny, the thing I probably remember least about CIC is the food! It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, sometimes it was healthy-ish, sometimes not. Once or twice a session we would cook our own dinner, but other than that, the food was kind of an afterthought. I hope you can get nutritious, good food to be a focus of the camp!