Camp Care Packages Gone Crazy. Thanks to Parents.

A $39.99 candy care package from Yum?

A $39.99 candy care package from Yum?

Every so often, I read what I like to call a WTF article. You know the kind; you skim through it with your jaw pretty much on the table, then you read it more carefully and feel either depressed or outraged or just kind of deflated. Happens to me a lot.

This week’s WTF article came courtesy of Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, with a piece titled The Care-Package Wars, in last Sunday’s New York Times. His article is about how many sleep-away camps have taken the step of banning parents from sending care packages, for a variety of reasons (junk food keeps kids from eating healthy meals; it promotes jealousy and competitiveness among bunk-makes; it attracts vermin). The story isn’t about the banning so much as it’s about the new and ingenious ways some parents are finding to get around the ban.

Because of course once a ban happens, it ceases to be about the kids — about making them happy with a treat; about teaching them the value of, you know, following the rules — and becomes about the parents. It turns into a battle of wills and wits between determined parents (determined, it has to be said, to give their kids junk food) and camp directors trying to run their camps in the best way they can.

You can’t make this stuff up: Parents are hollowing out Harry Potter books and tennis balls, for cripe’s sake, and filling them with candy; taping pieces of gum into the pages of magazines; and slipping small bits of junk into emptied-out tampon applicators and deodorant sticks.

Mind boggling yet?

Let me also inform you, in case you didn’t know this, that if you want to send a care package (say, to one of the camps that still allows them), and you don’t have the time or inclination to dig up an empty shoebox and buy and fill it with whatever you want to send, you can grab a phone or laptop and a credit card and order up a custom-made package. For serious. Feiler quotes a guy named Malcolm Petty at a Kansas-based care-package company called Sealed with a Kiss who keeps lists of which camps he’s authorized to send to and which are on the no-no list. Despite growing numbers of bans, this is big business, friends. SWAK has a 12,000 square foot distribution warehouse and 25 employees.

I don’t send my kids to sleep-away camp, so I have no direct experience with this. That being said,  I’ve watched the more-junk-food-is-best wars play out in every year my kids have attended elementary school. There is no middle ground in this war, at least not around here. In our former (beloved) K to 2 school, there was one year in which the principal, in frustration, I believe, completely banned any food at parties and holiday celebrations. No food at all. People were pissed.

During that year, I felt sort of bad for the kids. Because it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t have one cupcake for a birthday, or one Christmas cookie or Thanksgiving butter-making activity. Because the thing is, there is no such thing as “one” in many schools. When my older guy was in first grade, we did the butter-making thing (you put heavy cream and salt in a jar and shake like a mofo until it turns into a blob of butter floating in buttermilk). The class mother thought it would be a good idea to bring in corn muffins to spread the fresh butter on, which was a great idea. But she didn’t stop there. The kids also had a literal smorgasbord of junk, from Twizzlers and cookies to potato chips and, no joke, ice cream sundaes.

Why wasn’t freshly-made butter on corn muffins enough? It was Thanksgiving, not a candy store. I remember the class mom actually remarking on the nausea-inducing piles of crap on the kids’ plates. As if a first-grader is going to be discerning when faced with such largesse!

The class mothers who do this kind of thing are the ones who make a well-meaning principal like ours in that year feel desperate enough to outright ban food. Earlier, she’d banned goody bags for kids’ birthdays. Why? Because not everyone does it, so you have the jealousy thing. And because the kids — surprise! They’re kids! — open them up and start eating lollipops on the bus ride home.

In that food-free year, many a class mother flouted the rules. For the kids, they’d say. Which is bullshit. They flouted the rules for the same reason these crazy camp care package parents flout them: To be cool. To be competitive with one another. To satisfy themselves that their kids would be cool, at least as long as it took for him and his bunk-mates to tear through the tennis balls looking for Mike and Ike’s.

Feiler’s article quotes one camp director who, so far, still allows care packages, saying that “…we firmly believe that there are fewer nicer things in life than getting a care package from home while at camp.”

He’s right, of course. But his rules (no more than three per camp season per kid; please try to include healthy snacks; please include enough for your child to share with bunk-mates) will no doubt be ignored and pushed to the limit, until he has no choice but to shut it down.