My 7 year old son experienced his first school camp this week. Just 1 night 2 days. In the lead up to it, he was super excited about it. As was I. Ah, the sweet thought of not having to play referee to his fighting with his younger sister for an entire afternoon, or not having nag him about piano practice or getting dressed for school a little faster than snail's pace. He's fiercely independent and social so I knew homesickness would not be an issue. When these guilty pleasures stopped, mild panic hit. What are they going to feed the kids on this camp? If you read my blogs I think it's safe for me to assume that I don't need to explain why I would be even concerned about this in the first place. From what I have observed to date, mainstream schools do not put nutrition centre stage (or even left of centre) of a child's development. It's the aspiring but lack-lustre actor that plays no role.
I asked one of the teachers about the food on camp who unapologetically said "The food offered is pretty bad.You know the usual stuff of boxed cereal, white refined bread, margarine, deep fried processed meat. I take my own food!" Bloody hell. I called the camp caterers who confirmed that all of the food is processed, shipped into the camp site in packages and nothing is fresh other than a little fruit due to "budgetary constraints." And this is from one of Australia's top private boys school that summons a whopping $20,000+ per child per year. I was outraged but not surprised. My concern was that if Will was to eat this "non-food" for 2 days he would feel utterly sick and not enjoy the camp experience as his system is not used to processed foods. This is different to the one off small piece of junk-food consumed at a school birthday party. This is 2 days worth of refined grains, industrialised seed oils and refined sugar. Fortunately one option was to make and bring all of his food with the caveat that nothing could be heated as there were no stoves other than microwave ovens but the food could be refrigerated.
So here was my challenge: preparing 2 days worth of yummy food that Will would be proud to take and eat that could be consumed stone cold straight from a fridge. Microwaving is not a healthy option.
Here was my tactic: get Will's buy in and get him involved in the menu designing process. As a parent and having been a child myself I am very conscious about my children not feeling different from other kids or being ostracised about the food they eat. Life is already tough enough. Remember the film Wog Boy? When Nick Gionopoullos unpacks his table-sized spread of assorted Greek mezethes for lunch and was made fun of by the "Anglos" holding their white bread vegemite sandwhiches. Well, that was me growing up in Qld in the 70s- little mono-browed Soulla, the only wog at her school, eating moussaka and tazatziki for lunch.... feeling more than a little different amongst the blonde-haired blue-eyed surfie crowd. I don't want that for my children- I want them to participate FULLY in all social activities that they want to, and to feel part of the crowd. To the extent that an aspect of that activity (eg 'food' offered) negatively affects their health, my answer to date has not been to withhold them from the activity in its entirety (which my parents would have done) but to offer them a more healthy food option. This has been the strategy to date with birthday parties (of course you can go to Luke's party but is it ok if you eat these yummy snacks instead, and feel free to offer them to the other boys too...).
As it turned out, buy in from Will was no problem. He's so used to taking his own yummy snacks to birthday parties and appreciates my concerns about the effect of processed/toxic food on growing bodies. So he was totally fine about taking his own food to camp and was delighted at my idea to design the menu together. I explained that there would be a few other boys taking their own food due to allergies and some of the teachers are also taking in their food, so he wouldn't be the odd man out. Had I not got buy in from him, it would have been a totally different story. I also tried to not make too big a deal of the fact that he was taking his own food and spent the weeks/days leading up talking about all other aspects of camp life such as the water slide, canoeing, bush walks, mangroves, connecting with friends and with nature etc.
Here's the menu we put together: hopefully some or all of these meals could inspire you with your own school / work / picnic lunch or snack ideas where heating food is not an option. I've also listed where I bought the food from to help you with sourcing. I packed each meal in a disposable recyclable plastic container individually labeled to make it super easy for him. Everything then went into a soft pack eski with icepacks to last the 1-2 hour bus trip before being refrigerated. I wanted to ensure that all of the foods that we consume on a daily /regular basis at home were incorporated into his meals. Apart from bone broth (which is difficult to consume cold unless in jelly form), all other nutrient-dense staples were included in the menu:
Day 1 Morning tea: small tub of wild berry Alpine goats yogurt (from Bondi Health Emporium)
Day 1 Lunch: smoked wild salmon tossed through a garden salad that included sauerkraut and salmon roe (salmon and roe from The Canadian Way)
Day 1 Dessert: 3 home made coconut date balls (made with raw cocoa butter, coconut oil, dessicated coconut and dates). I had initially made a chocolate hazelnut slice with a dollop of cream but when he tried it the night before he found that the raw cacao powder was too strong so opted to take nut-free coconut balls instead.
Day 2 Breakfast: a piece of left over tomato and herb omelette (eggs from Egganic which I buy direct from farmer), small tub of strawberry Alpine goats yogurt (from Bondi Health Emporium) plus bottle of whole milk (Lettuce Deliver).
Day 2 Morning tea: piece of fruit (BU Organics) with chunk of gruyere raw cheese (I buy cheese wholesale direct from importer)
Day 2 Lunch: sliced ham (Feather & Bone) with assorted veggie sticks and cherry tomatoes (from Just Organics on Oxford street- directly opposite About life).
Result: success. Will thought the food was great. Everything was eaten. And no one made a big deal about it. He came home happy, relaxed and had an awesome time. We focused on how he connected with people and nature and all of the exciting things he did (rather than ate).
Ongoing concerns: for how much longer I can adopt this strategy is entirely another question. The older children become the more pressure there is to not be, or seen to be, different. And presumably the longer the camps will be. In year 9 under his school curriculum he will be doing all of his schooling for an entire semester at Glengarry in rural NSW. There are certainly challenges ahead as my children become more entrenched in mainstream society and my only hope is that I can face each challenge in a spirit of creativity, courage and /or acceptance as the situation requires.
One of my favourite quotes immediately springs to mind: "to have the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
I often contemplate shaking up the system with small steps by getting directly involved in my childrens' schools and educating the power brokers about the flaws of the standard food pyramid and the importance of nutrient-dense food to growing bodies. But my small attempts to date have not been well-received. Unless meaningful changes come from the government level, schools will continue to adopt the standard food pyramid promoted by the government as opposed to a nutrient-rich traditional diet. As one close friend recently reminded me "your job is to change the health of your family, not to change the world." And that has been my approach to date. I do hope, however, that by this blog, ongoing community education and cooking classes/workshops that I offer, I can inspire other parents to make positive changes to the health of their family and to feel more empowered to take a stand where food supplied by external sources is less than optimal for their child. The more and more parents do this, perhaps institutions will one day sit up and listen, although the larger and more powerful the institution, the slower it will turn.
Now I would like to hear from fellow parents- what do you think about the approach I took? Would you consider making and packing all of your child's food for a 2 day camp? How have you dealt with similar situations?
I inadvertently forgot to take pics of the food Will took to camp but below is a photo gallery of food I pack for my kids lunches/snacks which is not too dissimilar: