This summer, nearly six million children will attend sleep away summer camps all over the United States. Each one of them will eat three meals a day at camp for his or her entire stay, so camps are responsible for providing a 5-week camper (the average length of camp stay in the US) with 100 consecutive meals plus snacks. While even the poorest school lunch program might be offset by healthy meals at home, there is no mitigating the impact of inferior summer camp food: campers eat exclusively what the camp serves, and the family’s influence on their child’s diet is effectively removed during his or her entire stay at camp.

As families take good food more and more seriously, the importance of summer camp nutrition grows. Once upon a time, inferior camp food was a joke based in truth that we were all comfortable with: bug juice, mystery meat, and sugary snacks. But in the wake of the enlightenment that is bringing food thinkers like Jamie Oliver, Alice Waters, and Michael Pollan to the forefront of a national dialogue, the stale old joke of summer camp food doesn’t seem so funny. Sure, some junk food in the diet of a child is to be expected considering its proliferation in the American landscape. But 100 consecutive meals and snacks is a considerable amount of food, and it is difficult to imagine that the quality of such a sustained diet would not impact the growth and development of a young body.  

The recent organizing around and legislation concerning school food was the appropriate place to start in thinking as a nation about how our children eat. But the estimated 600 million meals that will be eaten at summer camp next summer are an important next focal point of attention. Summer camp is, for a significant number of Americans, an essential part of growing up, and the portion of the population served by camping cuts across many demographics. Summer camp teaches independence in a way traditional schooling and extra-curricular activities rarely can.

Camp gives kids an opportunity to take responsibility for their choices away from the constant supervision of parents, and camp lasts long enough that kids get to see the effects of their choices and reflect on them. As a nation we are realizing that helping our children learn to make good life choices includes helping them learn to make good food choices. Because of the unique growth and learning that occurs in a camp setting, summer camps should be essential sites for the next stage in the food revolution. Summer camps are a place where we can begin feeding kids responsibly, and helping them learn to make good food choices on their own.

Summer is also a unique time to learn about eating seasonally, eating locally, and living sustainably. Tending a garden, visiting farms and meeting the people who produce our food, learning to prepare food, and learning to eat what the season and the local environment gives us are some of the wonderful opportunities that food-oriented camps can provide. Also, recycling, composting, conserving, and re-using can be a part of the day-to-day camp experience without taking time away from other fun and enriching camp experiences.