Hungry for Better Food at Berkeley’s Echo Lake Camp

by Sarah Henry on September 2, 2011 · 27 comments

in berkeley bites,kids & food

The panoramic alpine views draw outdoor lovers to the Berkeley-run Echo Lake Camp

As we head into the final long weekend of the season, the proverbial last hurrah of summer, it’s time for reflection on summer vacation (mis)adventures before fall sets in and school gets going in earnest.

Which brings to mind bad camp food. Specifically, the truly awful eats served at the Berkeley-run Echo Lake Camp. It’s shocking, really, that a city known for fine food and charming cheap chow can’t seem to dish up anything vaguely edible not-so-far from home.

The dining hall at Echo Lake Camp

The really woeful food on offer was a source of bonding among the 50 or so campers on the weekend we attended Echo Lake Camp in early August. We’re talking mystery meat, industrial, processed glop, and pathetic produce. Meals as misery.

Here’s the back story: on a whim, this reporter opted for a getaway with a friend and our kids to the lovely Echo Lake, gateway to the vast Desolation Wilderness, in the southern end of the Tahoe Basin region. A cursory check drew rave reviews for the location and family-friendly fun. No one mentioned the food.

During the week, local kids head to this camp for adventures in the wild without parents. On the weekends, the camp is open to families and others drawn to the area’s outdoor activities, including access to stellar Sierra mountain range hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail and Tahoe Rim Trail.

Working up an appetite canoeing at Echo Lake Camp

It’s the low-key alternative to the better-known family camps, Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp and San Francisco’s Camp Mather – both closed to campers at times this year due to outbreaks of gastroenteritis, known as the “Tuolumne trots.”

(More on this, alas, later. Oh, hell, let’s get it over with now: I got sick, acutely ill, in fact, on Day Two at Echo Lake, despite bringing enough hand sanitizer to serve the Armed Forces.)

Back to the matter at hand: Five of us — including a birthday boy — piled into a car on a Friday afternoon in August (hello traffic jam) for a weekend of swimming, canoeing, and hiking.

With work obligations and day camp schedules, an earlier departure wasn’t possible, so we knew we’d encounter some congestion on the road.

No worries. As savvy Berkeley parents we’d packed accordingly: Summer Kitchen marinara pizza, Kirala vegetarian sushi and Love at First Bite mini cupcakes, in honor of said birthday boy. Unfortunately, both moms hadn’t had time for lunch, the kids were ravenous from running around all day, and the freeway looked like a parking lot for long stretches of the trip. Needless to say, hunger and boredom got the better of us all and pretty much everything was scarfed up before we’d seen a pine tree.

We made it to camp before dark. Dumped our bags in the as-advertised but perfectly acceptable rustic accommodations, and headed to the dining hall in search of food. In fairness, we’d missed the dinner hour, so we were forced to make do with stale garlic bread and chunks of unknown animal matter in a scary-looking sauce. We divided up what we had left over from the car ride — seaweed salad and a couple of cupcakes — got the kids some milk, and called it a night.

On the way to breakfast the next morning this one-time investigative reporter noted the presence of bear boxes (we were under the erroneous impression none existed and there’s no mention of them on the camp website). Bear boxes meant that a bag of groceries and a small cooler of home-cooked food could have come on our travels and saved us some grief. Note to self: don’t make that mistake again.

Nothing this appealing was dished up when we attended Echo Lake Camp

Breakfast consisted of commercial cereal, sugar-laden yogurt, serviceable eggs, and French toast. The kids consumed the toast, but its odd texture and color put this eater off. We were invited to make our own sandwiches for lunch, and the ingredients included processed meats and cheese, condiments loaded with additives, and ordinary sliced bread — along with bruised apples and out-of-season oranges that were disappointingly dry when peeled by thirsty hikers along the trail.

Everyone tried to make the best of the slim pickings, but hunger really set in by dinner time. Maybe at this meal things would look up? Not likely. The vegetarian enchiladas were simply inedible. This camper was actually forced to discreetly deposit the only mouthful she tried into a napkin bound for the compost bin. The nine-year-old who picked the same dish just wrinkled her nose and didn’t touch a bite. I opted for the frozen vegetable medley, which seemed the safest bet at the time.

Oh dear. By now there was plenty of grumbling among the unhappy campers, not just our crew — and not just my stomach. One dad confessed his vegetarian family of four was having a hard time finding enough to eat. He said earnestly: “My kids are pretty committed to never coming back.” Somehow this wording struck me as funny at the time.

A seasoned hiker, part of a group of seniors taking wildflower walks that weekend, lamented the lousy food while mentioning that Camp Tuolumne, where she’d been earlier in the summer, served tastier meals. It’s been a few years, but if memory serves me correctly, I’d have to agree.

Regardless, since I caught a bug, I spent the last day subsisting on Cheerios.

Photos courtesy of (unofficial) Echo Lake Camp site: If only the food looked this good

Here’s what we all decided: it wouldn’t take a lot of tweaking to make the camp food more palatable: homemade granola with plain yogurt for breakfast, served with in-season, local fruit. Hummus and pesto instead of processed cold cuts and industrial relish for lunch. Rice and beans or pasta with made-from-scratch tomato sauce, in a nod to summer’s bounty, for dinner. Fresh corn. Salad greens instead of iceberg lettuce. Nothing fancy, minimal cooking, filling and nourishing nonetheless.

Presumably it’s challenging to find trained kitchen staff for such seasonal work and managing a program from afar, as the city does, may impact campers’ on-site dining experiences. And, of course, cost may be a factor. The camp is as cheap as chips: $50 a night for adults and $30-$42 for kids. But this writer would be willing to wager that Berkeley folks would pay a little extra to get some decent grub. After all, there’s nothing like the great outdoors to work up a hearty appetite.

Come Sunday afternoon we loaded the ravenous brood into the automobile and set out in search of food. Everyone ate an astounding amount at the River Grill in Tahoe City; you could sense the shift in mood as each person got stuck into some satisfying real food.

We devoured vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella with micro-greens and green chard raviolis stuffed with goat cheese and portabello mushrooms. And, as we ate, we adults debated whether or not we were just, you know, Berkeley food snobs raising kids who will have a tough time finding chow to rival what’s on offer in this town, flush as it is with farmers’ markets, global groceries, and organic, unprocessed foods.

What say you readers?

Hat tip: Margaret P, who endured two days of unappetizing eats with this writer and a trio of hungry children. 

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

Images here come from the unofficial Echo Lake Camp site by Bayard Geis.

 

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenne King September 5, 2011 at 8:35 am

When mentioning Bay Area Camps, writers often fail to remember Oakland Feather River Camp! The food and facilities will not disappoint. Our camp is owned by the City of Oakland, run by non-profit Camps in Common, and is nestled in the Sierra Mountains outside Quincy, CA.
Since 1924 OFRC has provided family and kid camps at affordable prices. There are different themed weeks, family and kid programming, Horseback riding, Spanish Creek swimming, and amazing food! There is both Vegetarian/ Vegan and Traditional Chef prepared food served buffet style at meals and fresh in-season fruit served all day.
Memorial Day is a Free Work Weekend – a great way to teach the kids about community service, provide families opportunities to connect with nature, and learn about the camp offerings.
The camp is available to rent for retreats, school trips, and other special occasions.
Visit http://www.featherrivercamp.com for more info and please donate to the camp to help improve the facilities, fund programming, and provide camperships to everyone who wants to attend camp.
I think that because the camp is missed in press about family camps is why the camp is both one of the best kept secrets but also having financial struggles. Sarah and readers, please come visit Oakland Feather River Camp!

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Sarah Henry September 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Hi Jenne, Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm for Oakland Feather River Camp, which is new to me. You make a great case for why families should come visit.

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merr September 7, 2011 at 7:05 am

The outdoor environment looks gorgeous…maybe it’s best to tote in one’s own eats just for that?!

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 8:16 am

Couldn’t agree more, merr. Live and learn. What’s the Scouts motto? Oh, yeah: Be prepared.

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Living Large in our Little House September 8, 2011 at 8:30 am

It seems to me that a place that close to nature would also want kids to experience good, healthy food instead of processed crap. But, that’s just me.

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 9:31 am

That was my thinking too, LLLH.

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Alexandra September 8, 2011 at 8:35 am

It would be so easy to provide natural yogurt, rather than that stuff laced with sugar. There’s an obesity epidemic going on. Flavored yogurt cannot be good for you.

I run a green B&B, where I serve wholesome food like plain yogurt, and supervise a rental cottage in summer. People bring their own food to the rental cottage. It amazes me sometimes what gets left behind once they leave: food that would never make it into my shopping cart. GMOs, cereals with artificial flavoring, milk with growth hormone, etc. I guess the wholesome food movement takes time, even with folks who choose green.

Thank you for writing about these issues. We need to all become activists and write our legislators to demand support for organic farmers. I’m afraid that GMOs, drifting on the wind, will make organic farming impossible in the future.

I know from this blog that the Bay area has made great progress on school lunches, for instance. I’m hoping the movement will spread to Los Angeles, where my grandkids live. I hope Echo Lake Camp will take note and work on improving what is offered. The difference in price is minimal if one does the legwork to find the right sources.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Why Innkeepers Need an Occasional Break

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 9:34 am

Hi Sandy,

You may be interested to know that down in SoCal a fellow blogger, Andrew Wilder at Eating Rules, (a site I suspect you and others would like) is working hard as a volunteer to overhaul camp food for boy scouts on Santa Catalina Island. Details here:

http://www.eatingrules.com/2011/08/camp-food/

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Susan September 8, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Also, as natural, unprocessed foods become more mainstream, perhaps they’ll be more readily available and won’t seem so exotic? Or is that wishful thinking?

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I learned, Susan, from a city official this week that the camp has taken steps to improve the food served, including adding more fresh fruits and vegetables. Hopefully, they’ll keep working on the menu.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. September 9, 2011 at 6:30 am

Good to know they’re taking action, and I hope your post helped spur some of the changes. I DON’T think you’re a food snob; I think that access to healthy, unprocessed, more-than-just-edible food shouldn’t be a “bonus” but a given at these kinds of places. Good on you for speaking up.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Livin’ La Cucina Povera

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NoPotCooking September 8, 2011 at 8:50 am

What a shame. It looks like a beautiful place. I agree that it would not be that hard to make the food healthy and tasty. You’d think they would know better.

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 9:35 am

It is a lovely spot, NPC. And so many activities to do, which is why it’s especially good to have something nourishing and tasty to eat.

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Vera Marie Badertscher September 8, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Unfortunately, not everyone is attuned to eating the better alternatives. When my family went to a cabin for a week, I packed all natural, non junk food, but my son and d-i-l arrived with a bag of packaged cookies, chips, etc. etc. It’s going to take a generation or two to change things, I think.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..Travel Photo Thursday: A Window into Brittany

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Good point, Vera Marie, and some of us eat the occasional cookies and chips too, along with whole foods. But junk food aside, the meals were just not that tasty.

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MyKidsEatSquid September 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm

Ah, camp food. It can be pretty unappetizing. But I like the ideas and possibilities that others have commented on. Having a garden at camp might be a great way to educate kids and work more freshly grown eats right there.

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Great idea, though I can see some folks rolling their eyes at the additional cost and labor involved. But every Berkeley public school has a garden, so it would be a natural extension of what the kids know from their own environments.

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Kerry Dexter September 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I like MKES idea about a garden at the camp — that might help make things more interesting and easier for the kitchen staff, as well as for the campers.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..Songwriters gather in Minnesota

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Sarah Henry September 8, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Kerry, agree it’s a nice idea, but not sure it would address the volume necessary to feed the masses here. We were a small group that weekend, around 50. On a typical summer week day the camp feeds around 50-140 youth.

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Sheryl September 9, 2011 at 3:48 am

What a shame! It sounds divine…a few days in the wilderness, enjoying nature. A shame for all that to be ruined by the food, or lack thereof. Next time (?) – have cooler, will travel.

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Sarah Henry September 9, 2011 at 8:18 am

Yep, amazing what a difference a few well-chosen eats from home can do when working up an appetite in the great outdoors.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart September 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm

What a disappointment. Sorry to hear about it and the GERMS.

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2011 at 8:56 am

Yeah, well, some of it was just an unfortunate colliding of circumstances. It happens.
The area is gorgeous, so I’ll go back to explore again — with packed provisions.

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Alisa Bowman September 9, 2011 at 5:00 pm

What you are describing is pretty much standard fare where I live, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. I’m always envious when I read here about all of the great restaurants and food and festivals you all have. Glad this one camp seems to be more of an anomaly than the standard.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Is Honesty Always the Best Policy? Part 2

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Sarah Henry September 10, 2011 at 8:57 am

It’s good to be reminded that many other parts of the country eat this food as standard fare, and, as you point out, Alisa, it doesn’t make it right. Everyone should have access to wholesome, nourishing, appetizing eats.

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Jane Boursaw September 12, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Sounds like you made an impact on them! Good for speaking up. You may have created a much healthier, happier camping experience for all future campers.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Jane Previews the Fall 2011 TV Season

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Bayard Geis July 27, 2015 at 2:09 pm

I’m sorry to learn that the food at Echo Lake camp is not as good as it was when I worked there. We used to provide campers with wonderful food. As some of these pictures reveal, we tried to make the meals appealing.

I fondly remember when our cook, Shannon, worked so very hard to perfect the sauce for Eggs Benedict. Week after week she tried. I thought they were all good, but she wanted perfection.

Then there was the summer we had Alex, fresh out of Chef school and Mike, a serious fraternity cook. They were engaged in a friendly competition to see who could make the most amazing dishes. Wow, what a summer.

Then, there was Josh, who learned his art as a cook in the Navy. A true kitchen magician.

Camp food should be good. And it was magnificent during my 12 years at Echo Lake Camp.

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