Camp Organic

The smell of freshly made Peace Coffee, a locally distributed organic fair-trade coffee, fills the room. Organic chocolate chip cookies with no-hydrogenated oils await eager little hands. Grandparents, with grandchildren in tow, proceed to their chairs to find used folders, which are to be decorated with leftover craft materials to make them re-usable for holding all of the information they will gather during the week. And so begins each day of Camp Organic, a program designed to encourage closer bonds between generations, with nature as the bonding agent.

We all know it’s better to eat healthy food, reduce waste, and recycle. We know it’s better to use less energy and to live more sustainable lives. When running a nature center, those concepts are taught over and over--in yearly Earth Day programs and in an endless stream of stewardship lessons. But we are often stuck in a world where money is tight. In an effort to keep the budget in line, we buy the cheap stuff-- the cheapest snacks we can get away with and still call them food and the cheapest materials for crafts, which create more waste.

To change this paradigm, our nature center started Camp Organic. The framework is to have thematic nature days and serve only organic snacks and beverages on reusable or compostable dishes. We use crafts that are from recycled or reusable sources, often using our own shelves as resources for craft materials, which have been leftover from other camps. The day’s activities are designed to be for grandchildren of multiple ages, knowing that each will be under the watchful eye of an adult. There is little waste generated from the activities, and uneaten food ends up in the compost bin.

At first, we asked our local co-op to give us a gift certificate to supplement the extra costs organic food typically generate, and they were glad to comply. The co-ops also supplied coupons for future food purchases as well as literature about the importance of supporting organic farmers, which we passed on to the grandparents.

Tipping the Scales

As the years go by, it’s easy to see the money saved on buying new craft supplies makes up the difference between buying cheap snacks and investing in the health of our visitors. As the program caught on, it was easier to raise the rates to make up the difference.

It’s important to break out of the mindset of saving money in areas where we need to make a statement, particularly because a critical thing has happened. The whole issue of sustainable eating and living has “tipped,” a term used by Malcom Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. He describes this as a phenomenon when an issue one is trying to promote catches on. Global warming has tipped--it’s now on everyone’s lips, when not too long ago, it was understood only among the scientific community. We know that eating healthily has tipped because the only complaint we were getting consistently about our programs was that the snacks were sub-standard.

It feels so good to teach a class where sustainable practices are in place. But I have to admit, for years, right after that class was over, we went back to buying the cheap stuff--snacks full of hydrogenated oils, loads of sugar, preservatives and dyes, and of little value. Then something interesting happened. The parents--particularly of our pre-school children--started requesting healthier snacks. The issue tipped. They told us they loved it when we served healthy, organic snacks. When asked if they’d be willing to pay more for that, they gave us a resounding YES. Even one dollar more per person can now make up the difference between buying the cheap stuff or the healthier options. We are using this sustainable commitment to attract and keep audiences.

So there are no excuses anymore. Green is the way to go. It’s affordable and the alternative is no longer acceptable. We must treat our bodies, our planet and our visitors with the respect we all deserve.

Dr. Karen I. Shragg is Director of the WoodLakeNatureCenter for the City of Richfield, Minn. She can be reached via e-mail at


A Typical Day at Camp Organic

Mammal Day

· Start with organic coffee and treats

· “Adopt” a mammal and do research

· Go outside to find signs of the mammal’s home and tracks

· Make plaster tracks

· Make a collage about the mammal from old magazines

· Make organic scat (mammal poop) cookies