We love my daughter’s sleep-away camp (the same Jewish camp my husband attended in his own childhood), but when she comes home at the end of the session with reports of the food she’s been eating, I practically have to put my hands over my ears. Apparently she doesn’t care for many of the meals served there, and has proven conclusively for medical science that a growing child can survive for three weeks eating nothing but Froot Loops, white flour pasta, and Popsicles.
So it certainly got my attention when, late last spring, I attended a Shabbat lunch at our Rabbi’s home and learned from several guests about the food program at the Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Colorado Rockies, the newest locale of this nationwide Jewish camp. Apparently the director of the camp was not only committed to serving healthful, sustainable, ethically produced food, but he also was making it his mission to involve campers in the process, teaching them to be more informed, thinking eaters. Only whole grains were used, I was told, in baked goods and cereals made on site. Organic foods were purchased whenever possible. Campers were involved in the cooking, and the social, ethical and environmental implications of food choices were expressly taught and discussed.
Hearing all this, I knew I had to track down the camp’s director, Rabbi Eliav Bock, for an interview for The Lunch Tray. Unfortunately, by the time we connected a few weeks later, camp was in full swing and he was understandably a little too busy to reply. But we recently got in touch again and — although summer camp is now a fading memory for most parents — I wanted to share our interview here:
TLT: Camp Ramah seems to have a very different philosophy about food than many other summer camps. For example, you spend more on the food you prepare than most camps, you educate campers about food, you make almost everything from scratch. What was the genesis of this philosophy? Whose idea was it, and how do you think it fits into the overall ethic of the camp?
When starting Ramah Outdoor Adventure, we had the opportunity to create a plan of what an “ideal camp would look like.” We began my creating a mission and a set of core values. We then moved to draft a list of “youth development outcomes;” for each we asked the question “how do we want campers to change because of their experience at Ramah Outdoor Adventure?” I spent six months drafting these ideas with a variety of volunteers and lay leaders. All this was done before we even began recruiting a single camper!
Part of our mission is to “influence the character development of youth.” We wanted to create a place where children could come and create good life habits that they could take home to their communities. The idea to focus so much on the food education came from my own involvement and interest in the Jewish food movement. One need not look too far in our communities to realize that the food we eat is having a direct effect on the rise in numerous social and medical issues. As a Jew who cares about people and our natural environment, I felt it was imperative to create a community that focused on the relationship between food and our other values.
The focus on food at our camp has enabled campers and staff to see that we really are committed to making every aspect of camp as healthy an environment as possible. From their first meal, campers and staff appreciate the quality of the food, and realize that this is a higher level than they would find in most industrial kitchens. From the first meal, they also learn that our kitchen staff are part of our broader camp family. They know their names, their personalities and interests and offer to help out whenever needed. Meals are so much more than simply a time to consume calories. Our campers and staff understand this from day one of Ramah Outdoor Adventure.
TLT: I know that Ramah serves almost no “white carbs” during the summer, instead using almost exclusively whole grain cereals and breads. Yet many kids balk at whole grain foods if they’re not accustomed to them at home. Do you get any camper resistance to the whole grains or to any of the other food offered?
Among our older campers, there are few complaints. Among our younger campers, there are usually more. From the first day of camp we take the time to talk openly with our campers about the food choices we make and why we do not serve white bread, and usually serve whole wheat pasta. By the end of the camp sessions, most campers have completely bought in, and many ask their parents to buy whole wheat products at home. But of course, there are always a few for whom the food continues to be an ongoing challenge.
TLT: I know that Ramah includes food education as part of its summer curriculum. Can you tell me a little about the types of lessons you share with your campers?
We have two main components of our food education. One component are micro lessons that we teach around the meal time. These can be something as short as placing a “factoid” each day on our food board below the menu about something we are eating. This might be a factoid about how mini carrots are really just big carrots and carrots too small to market that are peeled and packaged differently, or it might be about the amount of fertilizer used to grow tomatoes in Florida versus California. Sometimes, we stop for a 60-second “commercial” break during a meal to emphasize one aspect of the meal; we might mention that the salad greens came from a local organic farm, or that the “maple syrup” we are eating is only 25% maple syrup and 75% corn syrup. We do not only emphasize the good choices we are making, but are realistic about all the choices. In the case of the syrup, we have decided to buy the product with 75% corn syrup as it is a fraction of the cost of true maple syrup.
The other component is a more formalized curriculum where each day one group of campers spends time learning about how Jewish texts and values inform our decisions about food purchasing and consumption. They learn about issues relating to fair trade, organic farming and reducing waste. We try to take ancient texts and derive relevance in our modern world. One group of campers, who actually spent four days living and working on a local organic farm, had the opportunity to learn about shechita [Jewish ritual slaughter] and then actually watch a chicken being schechted. This optional activity truly lifted the veil on where our food comes from, as it is rare for a middle schooler to ever get that close to the food production system. [Ed Note: You can read more about the campers’ reaction to that experience here.]
TLT: At Ramah, everyone participates in the cooking at some point. What do you feel are the benefits of getting everyone into the kitchen?
Last year, most campers helped prepare food at our base camp. This year, most campers only helped cook on camping trips. As we grow, it is harder and harder to have campers in the industrial kitchen. But the value is the same. Putting campers in charge of their own food empowers them to take ownership over what they are eating. It enables them to understand just how hard it is to cook quality meals for large numbers of people. At our camp, when a meal is subpar (which occasionally happens), campers do not “bad mouth” the kitchen staff. They empathize with them, and realize that everyone is entitled to make a mistake. When a meal is excellent, the campers chant in Hebrew, “We want the kitchen staff.” Usually their cheering is loud enough, that the kitchen staff come out and give a bow before going around the dining hall doing “high fives.”
TLT: Can you tell me a little about how aesthetics (a nice table setting, for example) fit into your food program?
Meals should be a time for community building. In our regular lives, we use meals as a way to connect with friends and family in a more relaxed setting. At home, my wife and I set the table for almost every meal. Even for a simple meal, we put out a knife, fork and plate. Sitting down to a set table creates a little more aesthetic atmosphere.
When designing the Ramah Outdoor Adventure program, I wanted to make meals just as relaxing and as conducive to relationship building. We made a conscious decision to purchase restaurant-grade china dishes and plastic cups. Before every meal, campers and counselors take turns setting all the tables and filling every cup with ice water. This means that when you come into a meal, you are arriving at an aesthetically set table. On Shabbat we use white linen table cloths to cover the tables. This simple addition makes Shabbat feel that much more special.
Staff and campers appreciate the level of aesthetics. They understand that for the next 30-40 minutes they have a chance to not only eat, but to engage in conversation with their friends. I also have found campers take care of our equipment better than I had expected. We budgeted to replace about 10% of our dishes each year due to breakage. Instead, we break less than 2% of our dishes. Ironically, the breakage has almost never resulted because of a campers mistake, but because of our own staff’s mistake when washing and stacking dishes. Campers treat our dishes with care and respect.
TLT: The food you prepare at Ramah costs more than the usual institutional camp food. Do you consider the food ethic at Ramah a selling point for parents or do they ever balk at the higher cost (which I assume is reflected in the cost of the camp?)
The food we serve does cost considerably more than most other Kosher camps. But it is well worth the cost. Parents appreciate the effort we are making to teach their children about health eating habits. Our overall camp tuition is actually less than most Jewish overnight camps. We have contained food costs by preparing almost all of our food from raw ingredients. For example, we do not buy pre-made seitan, but make it ourselves from wheat gluten. We do not buy beans in cans, buy hydrate them ourselves. And on most Friday afternoons, we bake challah for 150 people! We also find plenty of saving in other areas. For example, we do not have a “canteen” and instead use the money we would be spending on cans of soda and bags of chips to buy more fruit and healthy snacks. We do not buy “cheap” disposable items for events such as color war and closing banquet. and instead use the savings towards having healthier meals.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to share with TLT readers about the food program at Ramah?
In our first year we found that there were some campers who missed being able to snack on food whenever they wanted. Therefore, we instituted a new idea this summer, where after each meal we put out a “snack bar” consisting of crackers, granola, fruits and vegetables. The snack bar was always open during the day up until thirty minutes before a meal. This meant that if you were hungry, you went and ate some delicious food. The snack bar added little to our bottom line, but meant that campers had more control over when they ate, and averted the fear that often happens in camp of “What if I get hungry!?”
Our food program is one of the highlights of the Ramah Outdoor Experience. The fact is that for most of us, this is the only food we are eating for 4-8 weeks. Our food has to sustain our campers and staff for 16-18 hours of activities each day. After seeing that a camp can serve excellent food on a large scale, I would never want to go back to the way I lived at other camps for so many years of eating food I would never serve guests around my own table at home!
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I want to thank Rabbi Bock for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’d like to learn more about the food program at Ramah Outdoor Adventure in the Rockies, you can read two blog posts about it from the Rabbi himself here and here.
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