2000s Archive

Free to Be Me

Originally Published August 2002
At a camp tucked away in the foothills of the Berkshires, kids come to grips with the seductive power of food.

There are two main rules at Camp Kingsmont: no sex and no throwing up. The first rule is de rigueur wherever teenagers are on the loose, but the second restriction is particular to Kingsmont, a "weight management" camp, tucked away in the Berkshires, for children between the ages of 7 and 18. In this particular program, the word fat has been excised from the vernacular like a tumor.

"This is not a fat camp," says Michael Ellerin, the camp's co-owner and director. "We don't do before-and-after photos." He describes it more as a place to heal the spirit than the body. Kingsmont campers have weight issues. "But don't make assumptions about what that means," says Betsy Gertz, a registered nurse who spent a summer working at the camp. "They end up here because of conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to dyslexia. But for all of them, food is a cushion." Photographer Mary Ellen Mark and I have decided to spend a week at the camp to meet the kids who, for better or worse, are youthful experts on the seductive power of food.

According to Keith Zucker, co-owner/director and resident guru, the average camper loses 30 pounds in the course of a summer. Zucker arrived at the camp for his first summer at the age of seven. He kept coming back for 16 years, then, in 1991, he bought the place, when he was just 23. Zucker doesn't seem to like the press; he doesn't show up for a scheduled interview—and keeps his distance the whole week. Ellerin, infinitely more friendly, explains the Kingsmont drill, required for all, which includes workshops on relearning how to eat and on how to use free time, weekly weight and heart rate checks, and using a small waistline monitor, about the size of a watch, that counts individual paces taken, miles walked, and calories burned each day. Every camper's progress is recorded. "The goal is to motivate the kids to change their attitudes and habits," explains Ellerin. "Counting pounds alone won't work. The danger is that kids will drop the weight here and gain it right back when they go home."

In this atmosphere, Snickers bars are strictly black market. There is no comfort food at Kingsmont, but there are other comforts, apparently sufficient to bring campers back year after year. Kingsmont, it turns out, is the one place where these children can leave their troubles behind.

A world unto itself, the camp is located in West Stockbridge, a small yet sophisticated village in the foothills of the mountains. As with most summer camps, coming upon Kingsmont is like discovering a lost settlement. A network of primitive paths snakes up and down hills and through the forest, leading to clusters of wooden buildings on a lake with a small beachfront. The main attraction here is a floating trampoline, which hurls campers into the cold, fresh water.

I watch two very large boys, maybe 12 years old and 20 pounds overweight, climb into a rowboat. One is very frightened; he doesn't know how to swim and needs a lot of encouragement from the peanut gallery onshore just to get into the boat. His companion boasts of expertise. Each boy is stuffed into an orange life jacket up to his neck, his head protruding from his protective shell like a turtle's. In the process, the boys launch the boat, almost accidentally, and the inevitable happens within seconds. Two soggy heads pop out of the lake and squeal in horror as the counselor shouts, "Put your feet down—you can touch!"

I assume they're going to abort this mission altogether. Instead, the boys drag the boat to shore and get right back in, chatting about their combined weight, the balance of the boat, and where they should sit. Then they nervously repeat the entire performance, this time successfully, to the sound of great cheering from the sidelines. Welcome to Camp Kingsmont.

When I first arrived, I wondered if campers would even speak to a reporter from Gourmet, a magazine that puts good food on the shortlist of human necessities. As it turned out, the kids were eager for attention—from anyone. They lined up to be photographed by Mark and were so open about their feelings that by the end of the week I felt protective of them. In an attempt to put myself in their shoes, I decided to attach a monitor to my own waistline and shed the weight of my preconceptions about Kingsmont. Then I joined the kids on their daily routines.

The occupants of each bunk are given a weekly schedule of activities—field sports, rope climbing, horseback riding, archery, and weight lifting—which moves them around the 225 acres of the camp. (Just to get to any activity involves a hike, so kids begin to lose weight right away.) The day begins with breakfast—pre-beaten eggs (with or without ham), Cheerios with skim milk, an orange, and a choice of ketchup, margarine, or Smucker's; one condiment is allowed with each meal. Zucker himself is in the kitchen at every meal, personally serving the food and greeting each camper. No seconds are allowed. At lunch and dinner, there is always salad, considered a "free food." The kids, to my amazement, appear blasé about the menus—a carefully selected 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day, depending on each child's energy needs—planned by a staff nutritionist and prepared, at the time of my visit, by Hanrow Hartley, a young, enthusiastic chef from New York. "I make every meatball by hand," Hartley tells me. The volume on food is turned way down, transforming meals into something of a ho-hum, if not bland, occasion.

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