Chew On This

By George Hughes

Is your camp prepared to offset rapidly rising food costs?

Is there a strategic plan or a magic formula to enact in the dining hall?

Food service at camp consumes a large portion of the annual budget, with some camps reporting this figure as high as 40 percent or even 50 percent of the total cost of operation, so controlling food inflation is critical.

Let’s take a look at the significant ingredients that make up your foodservice operation--food, labor, supplies, and overhead. For proper management and good stewardship, try these tips and practices to notice a difference in kitchen costs.

In order to examine food costs, begin with the menu, which is driven by customer preference, the skill level of the cooking staff, and the equipment needed to prepare the food.

Consider the two most favorite items at camp--homemade breads and desserts. If a camp doesn’t have the proper baking equipment--a proofing box for breads, a commercial mixer, or a proper oven--it will be difficult to achieve a high level of customer satisfaction.

So the trade-off may force a camp manager to purchase pre-made breads, cobblers, cakes, and other desserts at considerably higher costs. There are times when convenience foods are necessary and relatively competitive to buy, but this is not the norm, and it takes an effective purchaser to know the difference.

Mindful Purchasing
To resolve this problem and keep kitchen costs down, hire the best possible trained kitchen staff you can afford. Test the skill level of the kitchen manager with a pre-employment oral-written-practical exam, and check for reliable references.

The manager--who in most cases is the food buyer--also needs to follow a few prudent purchasing habits:

Know your audience and set the menu accordingly.
Many food products are designated by quality or grade. Higher grades usually cost more, as do fresh fruits and vegetables versus frozen, or frozen versus canned goods. While adults and counselors are more discerning than pre-teens, all deserve a quality product.

Food grading is also set by appearance and wholesomeness. For instance, the shape of a product may affect its grading if it is not uniform size, as in certain cuts of meat or cases of fruit. There are times when you do not need uniform-size apples or other items, so this is a wise way to lower cost.

Grading is done before shipment, so the distributor plays an important role in the wholesomeness of the product. Don’t accept unsatisfactory food products, even if the distributor is willing to discount the price, for you may end up discarding most of the food.

Be careful when buying food products that have not been inspected by a governmental authority. Beware of “street vendor” food products or severely reduced-price food products, even from a major supplier.

Food cost is affected by branding and the producer’s name on products.
The kitchen manager should examine the cost differences between a low-cost generic product, a house brand, and a national brand. House brands are not promoted by major marketing techniques, and tend to cost less than national brands, but often have the same quality.

Compare brands and choose the one that best meets your needs. Read food labels thoroughly. And don’t just buy what a sales representative suggests.

Also avoid impulse buying, even though the price appears attractive; this may result in more inventory with more cost on the books.

The menu should be “pre-costed” by the individual serving-size and portion.
Again, know your audience, and learn how much to prepare based on several factors, such as the level of camp program (a high-energy activity requires more, or larger, portions for participants than those for an arts-and-crafts program).

The menu should then be “post-costed” after it is served to determine the variance in budget versus actual cost. Keep detailed records as to how much was prepared, used, wasted, and left over by creating a food-production form.

When figuring cost, don’t forget to add condiments, cooking oils, seasonings, and garnishes for each serving prepared. These are often side items that are forgotten, but can be very expensive.

Organic foods often cost considerably more than traditional products.
A product must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients to be labeled “organic,” but a product with at least 70 pecent organic ingredients may be labeled “made with organic ingredients.”

Buyers should be aware that organic foods are no safer than nonorganic foods, according to government standards, and there is no scientific evidence, thus far, that has shown organic foods to be more nutritious than nonorganic foods. In recent studies, consumer panels have found no marked differences in taste or appearance between the two.

Other Cost-Saving Tips:

• Use nonfat dry milk and margarine in cooking instead of liquid milk and butter.

• Avoid the higher cost of pre-sliced meats and cubed cheeses by buying large pieces, and slicing or cubing them with commercial equipment.

• Maximize the use of leftovers, but remember they have the same cost served the second time around as they did the first time, but at least you are not throwing them away. This is an effective use of assets or products, and only a skilled kitchen manager or cook will know how to efficiently accomplish this.

• Rotate food products, using first-in, first-out inventory practices and taking a physical count of all products at least once a week. Know what’s in-house and what’s missing. Camping has had a long tradition of permitting campers and counselors to conduct late-night “kitchen raids,” but if not planned and well-supervised, this can be an expensive exercise. The same is true for “pack-out meals,” designed by well-intentioned--but inexperienced--camp staff members who request considerably more food from the kitchen than needed for their campers. Most of this food cannot be reused. And counselors tend to use significantly more foil for cookouts than needed at a very expensive cost. All of these procedures require strict monitoring in order to keep food costs in line.

There is no simple way to beat the food-inflation monster that seems to be lurking around every corner of camp, but following a few tried-and-true management principles and with conscientious stewardship in the kitchen, you will be able to cope successfully with the rising cost of food.

George Hughes, M.B.A., J.D., is executive vice president of Signature Services Corporation. He can be reached via email at For more information, visit

Do you have a question regarding food service or nutrition? Call us at (866) 444-4216 or send us an email at and we’ll print the answer in Camp Business!