Adios Oreos and Otter Pops: My Kids’ Summer Camp Has Gotten Healthy!
|August 29, 2013||Posted by Stacy under Junk food, Making change, Summer camp|
Every once in a while, you hear a story that gives you HOPE that someone is looking out for our children’s best interests and not just plying them with junk food to keep them happy. Better still, that certain someone is actually teaching kids to eat healthy rather than further reinforcing the idea that chips, cookies, candy and other empty processed treats are needed to have fun.
I’m the one who gets to tell the story this time, and it’s about my kids’ summer camp. Yes, it’s true: It has been a junk-free summer at our local YMCA. Unlike at most camps, the children didn’t spend the summer feasting on Oreos and Otter Pops. Instead, they’ve been busy doing healthy food activities such as carving watermelons (see photo above) and making homemade treats like frozen yogurt pops.
And guess what?!? They’ve had a blast!
Also new at our Y camp this summer: special weekly visits from Healthy Helen, a nursing student who dresses up in funny food costumes and delivers lessons, activities and games to educate the campers about nutrition and healthy living. During one session called “Sugar Lab,” for example, she had campers don lab goggles and measure the maximum amount of sugar they should have in one day, then compare it with the amount in sweetened beverages like soda. (Gulp!). Another week, she recruited kids to help make Banana Oat Bites, wholesome cookies with just three ingredients: bananas, whole rolled oats and peanut butter (or peanut butter chips).
It All Started With an Email
So how exactly did we get to this point? Well, let’s rewind to July 2012, when my oldest son, then age 6, was a first-time camper. At the time, I knew that he was getting junk-food handouts and was trying to look the other way. Then came Creative Cooking Week with a menu that included sugar cookies, cheesy nachos and other not-exactly-healthy noshes. Figuring it couldn’t hurt, I sent an email to program director Emilie Wark expressing my concerns and asking if the menu could be revamped.
Within minutes, I got her response–and it was better than I could have ever hoped. Emilie did more than just listen to my suggestions; she embraced them. Next thing that I knew, she was talking about swapping the sugar cookies for black bean brownies and incorporating nutritious ingredients into the other recipes. And it didn’t stop there. Later on, she sat down, considered the overall nutrition at the camp and decided it was time to make a change.
“In past years, the Y summer camp has done projects like make pizza, the 8-foot banana split, and had popsicles and quick treats,” Emilie explains. After getting my email, she says, “I realized [good nutrition] should have been the goal all along, since the pillars of the Y are healthy living, social responsibility, and youth development. Healthy eating feeds and flows into all of these three categories and supports each of them.” Which, of course, meant that the empty processed stuff would have to go.
But Wait: Aren’t the Kids Miserable Without the Junk?
Despite the disappearance of the 8-foot banana split and those quick sugary treats, Emilie says she hasn’t received a single complaint. In fact, “Because we are getting creative and including some traditional favorites (with a healthy boost), the balance has been producing only positive feedback,” she notes. “The most unhealthy thing we served this summer was pancakes, but they were made with buckwheat flour and served with fresh fruit and just a small amount of syrup. I think keeping some familiar favorites, while adding in as many nutrients as possible, has been key.”
Another reason the Y camp’s healthy makeover has been so successful? Because it’s been fun! “Instead of saying, ‘Today we are making healthy, no-added sugar treats,’ in a boring way, our staff members dress up, become a persona, and say things like, ‘Who DARES to eat beans in brownies??!!’” Emilie explains. “The black bean brownie recipe is now a camp tradition and the kiddos looove making them!” Emilie adds. “I think it gets them more engaged than just making regular old brownies. It gets them talking, enthusiastic, laughing, wondering, and learning about protein, vitamins, and all the little things you can ‘sneak’ into food.”
According to Emilie, even the camp counselors have been eating it up. “The staff are all voicing that they all want to be with the kids going to Healthy Helen, so they can learn the lesson for the day. The Sugar Lab proved to be very successful–in fact, the next day, one of our counselors chose to drink coconut water instead of a ‘healthy’ juice drink loaded with sugar.”
Could Times Be Changing?!?
My kids’ summer camp isn’t the only one making healthy changes. In a widely shared and debated piece on the Huffington Post in late June, Caron Gremont of First Bites wrote about the Oreos, Chips Ahoy and other junky stuff at her 5-year-old daughter’s camp–and being told that her child would have to go to the camp nurse to retrieve her healthy snacks from home. Then, in a follow-up piece a few weeks later, she revealed that the camp had ditched most of the junk for more nutritious options like apple slices, carrot sticks and watermelon. No doubt having the story circulating on the Internet provided a little nudge–but still, it’s a happy ending, so we’ll take it!
Yes, there are signs of progress. But unfortunately, these happy ending stories remain the exception. Last week on her wildly popular 100 Days of Real Food blog, Lisa Leake wrote a post about her 8-year-old’s sleepaway experience, which she titled Camp Junk Food (really, doesn’t that just say it all?). Back in July, it was obesity specialist Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., of Weighty Matters venting about the junk food fest at his oldest daughter’s overnight camp. You get the picture.
To be completely clear: I don’t deserve any credit for the transformation at my kids’ camp. Yes, I may have sent the email that put the wheels in motion. But it’s the camp’s program director, Emilie, who gets HUGE kudos for recognizing that the last thing today’s kids need is more empty processed treats. She saw the need for change and how the YMCA could play a vital role. Instead of just taking the easy path, she got creative and taught the kids that healthy eating can be yummy and fun. Her actions helped make a big dent in my own children’s junk food consumption this summer. And I, for one, am extremely thankful.
What was the junk food situation at your kids’ camp this summer? Do you think summer camp and junk food should go hand in hand? Tell me what you think! (To make a comment, scroll down and use the Leave a Reply box).