When I think about the time I went to Jewish sleep-away camp at age 6, the memory, much like the experience, leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. My unpleasant experience was not due to any homesickness or camper unfriendliness or even the activities at camp.
It was the food.
Nearly half the camp, myself included, got sick with food poisoning after one regrettable mystery meat dinner. In the middle of the night, my counselor pushed me and my sleeping bag out the cabin door and into the multipurpose room packed with other feverish, vomiting kids. My predominant memories from that weeklong session are mostly of eating saltines and watching “The Prince of Egypt” on VHS in the nurse’s quarters.
Summer camp food is notorious for being bad, but in the last few years several Jewish camp kitchens have emerged to set a new standard as campers — and their parents — have become more interested in the ingredients and process of food production. There is now a new wave of programs that focus specifically on culinary arts, farming and education on the subject of sustainable, organic food production and consumption.
“When I went to camp, it was all about ceramics, and now they’re adding cooking as an elective,” said Jeremy Fingerman, chief executive officer of Foundation for Jewish Camp, an organization that funds and supports Jewish camp programs nationwide. “Cooking and culinary arts is a growing level of interest that we’re seeing in Jewish camps,” Fingerman added, noting that increased popularity in gardening and farming activities are related to this trend.
At Eden Village Camp in Cold Spring, N.Y., campers spend their days farming, learning about the nutritional and Jewish values of food, cooking and of course, eating. The “farm to table” philosophy of camp gives kids the hands-on experience of turning the fresh produce plucked from the two-acre farm into that night’s meal. Campers use a bicycle-powered blender to make fresh pesto and smoothies, cook homemade pita bread and flatbread pizza in a cob oven and make ricotta cheese, yogurt and a host of other homegrown treats. All the while they are learning about care for animals, the earth and their bodies.
“In the process of doing these exercises, it gives them the feeling of ownership and accomplishment, which I think is important,” said Tom Hidas, head chef at Eden Village Camp.
Additionally, in Berkeley, Calif., Camp Urban Adamah uses the same array of cook’s tools, and this summer it will unveil aquaponic and vermaponic greenhouses to expose campers to sophisticated technologies to grow plants in urban environments.
Entering its third summer, Camp Urban Adamah, a day camp, gives campers ages 5 to 10 the experience of making their own sourdough starters to create the bread for which the Bay Area is famous. Campers will pick the wheat from the field, grind it by hand, mix the dough and eventually braid it into challah for Shabbat.
Casey Yurow, director of education and community outreach at Urban Adamah, said camps like his and Eden Village are part of “a renaissance movement in the North American Jewish community.” There are increasing of graduates from the Jewish Farm School, Teva, Adamah and other educational programs that produce leaders in the Jewish food movement.
“There’s a whole cadre of hundreds of people in their twenties and thirties that are going out and starting these [Jewish farms and camps],” Yurow said.
These camps often encourage campers to continue to eat mindfully back home and to use the skills they learned at camp to start their own gardens.
“If you can have the time of your life and go home and you don’t take with you into your life new outlooks, then we’re not meeting our goals here,” Vivian Stadlin, co-director of Eden Village Camp, said. “It’s really about what happens after camp.”
But eating organically and sustainably is often expensive, so Eliav Bock teaches his campers at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Colorado Rockies to find a middle ground between food and finances.
“When thinking about serving sustainable food at camp, it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Bock, founder and director of Ramah Outdoor Adventure. “We look at how food affects our wallets, our bodies and our environment. In the ideal world we are eating food that was grown on our ranch that is super healthy, but it’s not always like that. I don’t tell our campers to go shopping at Whole Foods. Some of our campers cannot afford it. What we say is we want you to be involved in those three factors. We are very transparent with our kids,” Bock said.
According to Bock the camp used to serve weekly hotdog and hamburger barbeques using non-organic kosher beef. But in 2011 campers and counselors started a petition to stop serving non-organic meat in order to fit in with the broader camp values. The next summer the camp held two barbecues and used mostly organic kosher chicken meat, which cost the same amount as a summer's worth of non-organic hotdog barbecues.
“Many kids were extremely happy. Some said we needed to find a happy medium between once a week and once a month,” Bock said, adding that this summer a camper's family donated over 100 free-range kosher chickens from from New York, which means 3 to 4 barbeques are in store.
“What was so exciting was that we had enough campers and counselors who really cared enough to do something,” Bock said.
Kids are evidently demonstrating greater concern for organic and sustainable food, but that doesn’t mean they are suddenly gobbling up tofu and vegetables like candy.
“Some campers would prefer that we serve chicken nuggets and pizza at every meal,” Bock said.” The younger ones tend to “grin and bear it,” he added. “Not everyone is walking around loving kale and brown rice.”
“Generally, under the age of 12, food is fuel,” said Zan Romanoff, a journalist who has surveyed camp food in California. “They pretty much want to eat as fast as they can so they can go play or talk to their friends.”
Yet even picky eaters are becoming less inhibited about trying something out of their comfort zone.
“When kids have a hand in harvesting and cooking something, they’re much more apt to try it and end up liking it,” Eden Village’s Stadlin said.
The cost of serving organic and healthier food may actually save the camp money on medical expenses.
“Good food is important because it keeps the kids healthy,” Fingerman said. “And I have learned that the camps that have spent a little more on their food have spent less on their infirmary costs.”
Now that’s something I can personally appreciate.