Reactions to First Lady’s program

Thank you to Talya for catching all the spelling mistakes in the previous version of this post. . .

Today is the first of many blog posts about food at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. Because the food we  eat at camp will play such an integral part in supporting the overall mission of the camp, I thought it appropriate to focus some of the blog posts leading up to camp on the use of food.

For those who missed the announcement yesterday, The First Lady, Michelle Obama, launched the “Let’s Move” campaign.  She has correctly singled out childhood obesity as a major epidemic facing America.   Her campaign aims to get kids off the couch, away from video games, and eating more wholesome food.  For anyone who has been aware of the growing food movement in America these past few years, nothing that she said yesterday is too surprising.   It is an indisputable fact that as a society, our children today are less healthy than they were a generation ago.  Anywhere from 25%-30% of American children are overweight.  As Mrs. Obama pointed out, today’s children are the first generation whose life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents.

As an American, I am saddened by these statistics.  Of course, it only takes a walk into a supermarket to see why this is the case.  I am not going to rehash all the arguments made by Michael Pollan in The Omnivores  Dilemma and In Defense of Food, but one thing is certain: eating healthy food is an expensive proposition and one that is not available to many people in this country.  It is easy to criticize parents who choose to serve their families 1,000 calories that cost $3.00 at a fast food restaurant rather than 1,000 calories of fresh greens that might cost $10 in the vegetable aisle.  But in reality, every family has to make their own choices given many influencing factors.   Cost is but one concern for some families.  Others are health, convenience and taste.

But the issue of what to eat extends way beyond a family’s kitchen.  Michelle Obama mentioned the role that school lunches play in affecting the health of American students.  As a Jewish educator running a not-for-profit summer camp, I would argue that all institutions that serve meals to minors must consider the food that they are serving and think about how the food affects the long term health of children.

An institution like Ramah Outdoor Adventure is not immune to making the same sorts of choices about food that parents living on a budget must make.  We too have a finite amount of time and financial resources available to us.  But in the final calculations, I believe that the choices we make in the kitchen must reflect the values by which we will run the rest of the camp.

When planning the budget for this new Ramah camp, I took a look at the budgets of other Kosher camps in North America.  I saw that the average camp spends three dollars per camper per day on food (not including labor).  One need only do the math to see that the quality of food that the camp is serving is miserably low.  Try living a healthy balanced diet on four dollars per day and notice the quality.  This low amount translates into a plethora of white refined carbohydrates, tons of frozen vegetables, and a lot of processed foods.  All the camps I visited this summer have also added salad bars to their offerings, though often these salad bars are filled with canned vegetables and beans in addition to a few fresh greens.  I do not believe that these camps serve any appreciable number of organic foods.

And frankly, I understand why a camp director would choose this route.  In most camps, meals are a time to consume energy for the next activity.  Often the dining halls are noisy, meals are rushed, and campers spend a few minutes shoveling food into their mouths.  While many Jewish camps take time after the meal to sing and build community, I have not yet seen one that stops during the meals to engage in educational programs about the food they are eating.

Our goal at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to completely change the way that we approach food at a summer camp.  We have budgeted much more money for food than typical camps.  Although I have yet to hire our head chef, the question I have asked each applicant is to tell me how they can help make the food they are serving fit within the broader mission of the camp.  Anyone who does not see a direct link between the program in the kitchen and the program on the ropes-course cannot be considered for the job.  Admittedly, this has made hiring our head chef all the more challenging, because I am not only seeking someone who understands Kosher food, but also someone who understands the intersection between sustainable foods and wholesome cooking.

So what are some of the commitments we have made for 2010? Here are four:

  1. Throughout the week, we will be engaging in programming about food during our meals.  We will be adapting elements of the Hazon Tuv Haaretz Curriculum for use at camp.
  2. We will make an effort to buy no white carbohydrates.  This means, whenever possible, we will purchase whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and whole-wheat bread.  We realize that there will be exceptions and of course we are limited to what we are able to purchase with a Kosher symbol.  Luckily Colorado is blessed with wonderful kosher organic whole-wheat bread and organic whole-wheat pasta that is certified by the OU.
  3. We will serve mainly whole grain cereal and oatmeal for breakfast—only on occasion serving typical “camp breakfast foods” like waffles and pancakes.
  4. Campers will take an active role in preparing food at camp.  This will enable everyone from the youngest camper to the oldest staff member to take ownership of the food that we will be eating.  When the food is great, we will know who to thank.  When the food is bad, we will know who is responsible.

As Michelle Obama suggested today, eating healthily does not mean never eating any junk food.  Who does not love pizza, fries and burgers?  And living a life of denial from all “junk” food is certainly not a way of leading a healthy and happy life.  However, it is also imperative to eat all of these in moderation, which we will be modeling at Ramah Outdoor Adventure. For example, our menu will be vegetarian most of the time except for a weekly Bar-B-Que where we will eat meat cooked on a grill.  Would we all be healthier if we chose to forgo these burgers and hotdogs?  It is possible, but there is also a value in having fun and hanging out around a Bar-B-Que enjoying the late summer afternoon.

At this point, we are still in the planning stages about the food aspects of our program.  We have a long way to go before we will be able to look back and see how well we have achieved our goals.  But building a camp is a process.  If we do not set lofty goals we will have no way of achieving change in our community.  I hope that we will become the model for how camps will rise to the First Lady’s challenge and begin to reinforce the value of eating healthy food and of making smart choices in our diet.

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