Vegetarian Camps for Kids

All-star summer camps promise new friends, great adventure, and delicious food for today’s veg youth.

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Anticipating crisp, magical summer nights isn’t only a yearning felt by the young at heart. Schoolchildren across the country are also sitting, waiting, and wishing for summer holidays filled with boundless fun and spirited adventure. Fortunately for compassionate kids, a host of vegan-friendly summer camps are cropping up on both sides of the country.

For nearly two decades, Camp Exploration in California has been offering children an action-packed, cruelty-free camping experience. Andy Mars, PhD, founded the first all-vegan camp in 1993, with a vision to create a positive space where young people could learn and thrive. After working as a teacher, principal, and camp director several times over, Mars wanted to impact the lives of young people in a unique way. To Mars, an important part of connecting with children is offering them encouragement and empowerment, which nurtures their innate curiosity and compassion. Per the camp’s mission to make a difference for humans, animals, and the planet, all of the food served is vegan, mostly locally grown, and organic. In true summer camp tradition, the meals at Camp Exploration are often planned around a theme: garlic bread and spaghetti on Italian night, tacos piled high with vegan cheese and guacamole at the taco buffet, and even a roll-your-own-sushi dinner. Kids also enjoy campfire classics as well, including vegan franks and beans, chili, and s’mores made with amaranth crackers, organic chocolate, and vegan marshmallows.

Mars says that the food is not only an overwhelming success with campers, but that he routinely receives calls, texts, and emails from campers inquiring about recipes. “Not only are our meals fully conscious and enjoyable, but they are also very kid-friendly. Their success is proven summer after summer,” says Mars. The camp attracts kids from across the US and beyond, with campers traveling from as faraway as Japan and Russia to experience the fun of cruelty-free, eco-friendly camping. It offers programs for kids of all ages, from elementary schoolers to middle school age children. Activities at Camp Exploration often combine fun and play with community service and conservation, such as hiking trips that include trail improvement projects and cleaning up beaches after a long day of fun in the sun. Mars believes that teaching children about conversation early is the key to creating more environmentally conscious adults. “We believe in walking softly on this planet—that is what we teach and that is how we live,” says Mars, “With our small groups, we’re able to sit down in a circle pretty much anywhere and discuss the world around us and our impact on it. Absolutely, learning about environmental issues is a regular part of the experience for campers.” Other camp activities vary from the common, such as arts and crafts and swimming, to the memorable, such as day trips to amusement parks, museums, and skating rinks. In addition to its summer programs, Camp Exploration also offers kids an overnight camp during winter vacation.

Up the West Coast, another cruelty-free summer camp is preparing to celebrate its second year of compassionate camping. At Youth Empowered Action Camp (YEA), children are encouraged to take action and help make a difference in the world around them, whether that means becoming an eco-warrior or a social justice advocate. YEA Camp presents kids age 11 to 16 with the unique opportunity to pursue their passions through educational workshops and campaign projects to fulfill their goals. Currently, the camp is offering two summer sessions in Santa Cruz, Calif., and one in Portland, OR. Nora Kramer, founder and camp director, believes that the camp offers children and teenagers a special opportunity to connect with issues they are often considered too young to influence, imbuing within them a lifelong interest, dedication, and love for activism. “It’s a really inspiring space to see kids who are really starting to recognize their own power and potential for leadership to express themselves,” says Kramer.

Because of its commitment to make the world a better place, the camp also strives to have the smallest carbon footprint possible. Along with eco-friendly materials and encouraging reducing consumption, all of the food at YEA Camp is vegan, with an emphasis on locally grown and organic grub. Creating the perfect vegan summer camp menu is important to Kramer, who hopes that flavorful, plant-based meals will make an impression on campers’ taste buds. From energizing breakfasts brimming with soy yogurt, fruit, vegan sausage, French toast, and pancakes, to decadent dinners including veggie stir-fries and pizza parties, delicious vegan food is never in short order. Despite its all-vegan food policy, only three of the 15 campers who attended last summer were vegetarian, and none were vegan—but they all loved the food just the same. Kramer was especially heartened by the campers’ interest and curiosity concerning vegan food, with questions such as, “How could there be vegan ice cream?” only considered once mealtime had ended. And while veganism is certainly introduced at YEA Camp, it isn’t the overall focus. “I think my favorite part about camp last year was that there were moments where I saw kids’ faces light up, and they got to see that they could actually make a difference in ways that they hadn’t thought they could before,” says Kramer.

Think that summer camp is a seasonal pastime saved only for childhood? On the other side of the country, Camp Common Ground disproves that notion, providing all-vegetarian, sustainable summer camp fun for the whole family. Since 1994, families the world over have been vacationing at this 700-acre camp located in the heart of rural Vermont, where all of the food is organic, locally grown, and vegetarian. From build-your-own-burrito bars to vegan lasagna, the camp takes the guesswork out of dining by labeling every dish with ingredient cards and denoting what is vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free. One of the goals of Camp Common Ground is to meet and respect the individual needs and interests of adults and children. Activities for adults include music, art, movement, and communication courses. Taught by industry professionals, they’re as diverse as cello and violin lessons to glass-making workshops. Many of the games and sports are all-ages events, allowing families to relax and spend quality time with one another, including an evening of stargazing into the pitch-black Vermont sky with the aid of a local astrology group. Camp director Carole Blane and her family first came to Camp Common Ground 10 years ago as campers, and have been returning every year since. Blane says that it is the relationships and community that make the camp so special, and that its all-inclusive experience makes taking summer vacation a breeze. “Part of the beauty of Common Ground is that there is something for everyone. You don’t have to get in your car, you don’t have to pull out your wallet, and you get to spend time with your family and everybody has fun,” says Blane.

While cruelty-free camps offer children a completely vegan experience, more and more nationwide children’s organizations are embracing vegetarianism. In 2009, the Boy Scouts of America National Council added information on plant-based diets to the cooking and food section of its Boy Scout Handbook 12th Edition. The handbook—which, for the first time, was printed on recycled paper—emphasizes that vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritious, and herbivorous campers are encouraged to discuss their diets with troop leaders. Recommended vegetarian recipes range from vegetable chili to fire-roasted corn on the cob, and if all else fails, campers are allowed to bring their own food—an option also open to Girl Scout campers. Whether embarking on a summer camp adventure or vegging out during a fun-filled family retreat, there’s no denying that going cruelty-free in the great outdoors will guarantee kids and parents the best summer of their lives.