Eat Your Vegetables

“Farm to table,” “locally grown,” and “know your farmer” are phrases that ring especially true at Hawthorne Valley Summer Camp in Ghent, N.Y. Each summer, a variety of day and overnight summer-camp programs welcome children ages 8 to 15 for an immersive farm-camp experience. At Hawthorne Valley, food—how it is grown and how it is prepared—is more than three meals a day in the dining hall. It’s taking an active role in growing, harvesting, and learning how to prepare delicious, farm-fresh meals.

Hawthorne Valley Farm

Nestled in a lush valley, surrounded by pastures, fields, and forests, Hawthorne Valley Farm began its life as a non-profit, educational, working dairy farm in 1972. Located in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York two hours north of New York City, the 400-acre, biodynamic farm has a 60-head dairy herd, 15 acres of vegetables, a creamery, kraut cellar, bakery, on-farm Waldorf School, and a vibrant Place Based Learning Center that welcomes children year-round. The farm revolves around cultivating relationships—with the earth, surrounding communities and the landscape, and people. Since its inception, the farm has hosted more than 20,000 children through the Place Based Learning programs.

From The Garden To The Table

For three two-week sessions every summer, children from urban and rural communities in the region attend the Kids Can Cook day camp. And they really do learn how to cook! The program was created in 2009 to connect children to the wonder and beauty of nature through food, nutrition, and farming. In each session, 24 campers are divided into four groups that rotate through gardening, cooking, baking, and animal care. While campers on garden duty are picking cucumbers and lettuce, those on kitchen duty are preparing soup and a salad for lunch. The cooks give the garden group a list of what needs to be harvested each day.

“We try to make it as farm-to-table as possible,” says director Indigo Ocean of Kids Can Cook, as the smell of freshly baked bread wafts up to the farm’s administration offices above the kitchen.

For animal duty, campers use leashes to walk the farm’s three sheep (Stella, Luna, and Lila) out to the pasture to graze. Feeding the chickens and collecting eggs are a daily chore, as is taking vegetable scraps and whey from the creamery to feed the pigs. By the end of summer, nearly all of the pigs have been named Wilbur by the younger campers.

Through these daily routines, campers come to understand that everything on the farm and its food system are interconnected—the milk from the cows makes cheese, the whey from the cheese feeds the pigs, the manure from the pigs becomes compost to build the soils in the vegetable fields, and the vegetables are harvested and turned into meals to feed the campers.

Field Camp

During the residential camp, the campers ages 12 to 15 experience the farm from the viewpoint of a junior apprentice. They work alongside the professional staff members who grow, process, and cook healthy food. Campers rotate through work experiences:

  • In the creamery, learning about the process of making yogurt and cheese from dairy cows
  • In the kraut cellar, learning about the science of lacto fermentation
  • In the bakery, making bread with wheat and rye grown on the farm and milled on site
  • In the vegetable fields, working with farmers to plant seedlings, weed, and harvest the bounty of the season
  • In the milking barn, mucking out the barn (every child I have ever asked swears they love this job!) and helping to care for new calves
  • In the dining hall kitchen, learning basic kitchen skills and helping prepare the daily meals for the overnight campers.

No Nuts, Please—Dealing With Food Sensitivities

As with any other camp, one of the major challenges for the kitchen staff is to create wholesome, nutritious menus while accommodating what may be a wide range of food allergies and sensitivities. At Hawthorne Valley, all meals are vegetarian, and mostly vegan. Both of the camp kitchens are nut-free; this past summer, every session had at least one camper with a nut allergy, so designating the kitchens to be completely nut-free helps eliminate potential contamination. In the case of severe allergies, it’s too risky to even use coconut milk in cooking because it is often processed in facilities that also make products with peanuts, so soy or rice milk is used as a dairy substitute. For campers with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, there are specific racks, equipment, toasters, and utensils sequestered from the rest of the kitchen for gluten-free food preparation. While everyone eats the same food at meals, kitchen staff makes separate soups and salads for campers with multiple allergies.

Eating What We Grow

As much as possible, meals during camp are made with vegetables grown at the farm. Kids Can Cook meals use vegetables from the Children’s Garden, where an astonishing variety of vegetables and herbs are grown, harvested, and cooked entirely by campers. The overnight camp dining hall plans its menus around the seasonal vegetables from the farm’s 2-acre Corner Garden. Any produce not grown by the campers—carrots and potatoes, for example—are sourced from other local, organic farms. Grains—lentils, polenta, and rice—are a staple at every meal, as are Hawthorne Valley cheese and kraut. For many of the campers, they’re trying some foods for the first time. Tastings of the farm’s cheeses and sauerkrauts are always a treat; kitchen manager Stephanie Evans says she was surprised to discover that campers tend to like best the Ruby Kraut, made with red cabbage.

For her first time running a camp kitchen, Evans developed all of her own recipes. Field campers helped with writing out the recipes and testing ingredient measurements. She says that one of her greatest challenges is coming up with menus that will please the palates of campers and staff members—a group ranging from 8 to 50 years old. “I’ve had to tame down my use of spices,” she says. In addition to taking any number of allergies into consideration, she needs to build enough protein into the menu, although she comments that “I’m a vegetarian, so that’s not really an issue.”

All of the campers leave Hawthorne Valley with a better understanding of what makes a local food system. They have—quite literally—put their hands in the dirt and been an integral part of the process of growing, harvesting, cooking, and eating whole foods. They have learned about every aspect of working on a farm and what it means to create a healthy, vital food system. And hopefully, they take home what they’ve experienced at camp so the next time they go grocery shopping with their parents, they’ll reach for that bunch of organic carrots in the produce section.

Karen Preuss is the Director of Marketing and Communications at Hawthorne Valley. She visits the farm’s Children’s Garden almost daily to see what is growing, and loves meeting children on the farm. She can be reached at kpreuss@hawthornevalleyassociation.org.