Carrots for Candy: The Great Boy Scout Experiment
How Penn State PRO Wellness is helping scouts make better food choices
By Heidi Lynn Russell
Summer camp can be rife with memories of telling ghost stories by crackling campfires, hiking through shaded trails, gliding in a canoe across a sparkling lake – and candy – lots of candy – at the camp “trading post.”
It’s that candy that is a concern to the Boy Scouts of America. As rates of childhood obesity increase in the United States, the Boy Scouts organization wants its members to enjoy their camping experiences with wholesome, delicious meals and snacks.
How can they convince children to want to make healthy eating choices?
Enter, Penn State PRO Wellness at Penn State Children’s Hospital. PRO Wellness provides schools, communities and like-minded organizations with assistance in implementing evidence-based programming and tools to promote healthy eating and active living.
Jeanne Arnold, a Boy Scout National Executive Board member and Penn State Children’s Hospital donor, was asked to lead the Boy Scouts of America’s Presidential Task Force to address childhood obesity. To accomplish this, she asked PRO Wellness to partner with the scouts to craft a healthy eating strategy.
Last summer, PRO Wellness and the Boy Scouts launched a pilot project at Bashore Scout Reservation, the Pennsylvania Dutch Council’s summer residential camp in Lebanon County. This program reached about 1,100 scouts and 400 adults. Things went so well, that this summer, the scouts expanded the program to 14,000 scouts and 4,000 adults in camps nationwide including the Atlanta Area Council in Atlanta, the Grand Canyon Council in Phoenix, and the New Birth of Freedom Council in Mechanicsburg. In February 2018, PRO Wellness looks forward to presenting the success of the first two years at the American Camp Association National Meeting, says Erica Francis, senior project manager.
Dr. Jennifer Kraschnewski, PRO Wellness executive director, is excited about how well the partnership has been working and the positive effects on the boys.
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration, not only because Boy Scouts is an outstanding group, but they are passionate about doing this,” Kraschnewski says. “It takes a lot of courage, because it’s tough to make a change like this.”
A “Rainbow of Colors” on a Plate
The role that PRO Wellness played with the Boy Scouts and nutritious modifications at camp was to look at camp menus and make them more healthful, Francis says. To keep things “child friendly,” the team started with small changes that significantly improved nutrition content.
The scouts were getting their food from two sources: the regular meals in the dining hall – and the snacks at the “trading post.” At meal time, it was easier to introduce changes that the scouts would accept, says Matt Adams, scout executive at the Pennsylvania Dutch Council.
“They had to go to the salad bar first and choose healthier options instead of hitting the line first with carbs – basically getting the rainbow on the plate first. It went really well,” Adams says. The salad bar has heartier, colorful food selections that includes eggs, chick peas and olives, plus fresh food daily from local markets.
Francis notes, “The menus of the past were carb-heavy, full of starches and sugars.”
The PRO Wellness team made some sneaky swaps. For example, chicken nuggets were dipped in whole-grain batter. Dieticians also switched carb-laden mac-and-cheese with carrots and hummus. Baked chips replaced potato chips. Other new menu additions were low-fat dairy choices, 100 percent fruit juice, more fresh fruits and vegetables to replace canned and frozen. They also limited sugary desserts to one meal. “We were trying not to touch entrees too much. We still wanted them to eat and be fueled, and we wanted to make sure they weren’t hungry. But now they fill up on nutrient-rich items, which is what they need, as opposed to mac-and-cheese, which doesn’t sustain them,” Francis says.
The Trading Post Challenge
The team then faced a bigger challenge – the “trading post,” which is where the scouts know they can get their favorite candies and snacks, such as slushies, Kraschnewski says. Even some adults pushed back against suggested food swaps, noting that “kids should be kids” at camp, she adds.
“Food is interesting, because people get passionate about food,” she says. “The slushie sales at the trading post were just crazy. We know they get too much sugar from them, and in the heat, this can result in abdominal pain and even dehydration. Short-term acute illnesses from not being hydrated are common at camp, so there were reasons beyond obesity prevention to make changes.”
To help the scouts make healthier choices, the team tried some tricks used at grocery stores and convenience stores – they put the healthier options, such as fresh fruit cups, flavored waters, sunflower seeds, trail mix, and energy bars at eye level on the shelves. Candy and other snacks were still available, but the healthy options were positioned so that boys would consider them first.
“Surprisingly, the sales went up as we introduced healthier options,” Adams says. “This year, we still have healthy options in the trading post, strategically placed to eye level. And unlike last year at meal time, we’re not phasing in whole grains – we’re just doing it from beginning, immediately. The food quality is good.” PRO Wellness is also working with Boy Scouts’ chair of its National Camp Accreditation Program to rewrite the nutrition standards for all of its camps.
“We know that policy affects practice. If we could improve the policy, the camps would be more likely to improve practices. We’re excited about that opportunity,” Francis says. “Along with that, we’re working on a tool kit for remote assistance.”
Meanwhile, Kraschnewski says that while the program extends to other camping programs around the nation, she also hopes the scouts will take any newfound nutritious food or eating habit home to their families. And she hopes parents will be engaged with their children about their food choices at summer camp.
“Parents should be willing to ask questions of their camp. It’s their right to know what kids are exposed to,” Kraschnewski says. “And I’m so proud of our collaboration. This is an opportunity to have an impact on the Boy Scouts, who serve 2 million youth. Every new program is a start in the right direction.”
If you're having trouble accessing this content, or would like it in another format, please email the Penn State College of Medicine web department.