As summer approaches, many of us wax nostalgic about the years we spent at summer camp. But when someone utters the words “camp food,” it does not usually evoke pleasant memories. For camp veterans, those two words bring back disturbing recollections of rubbery cold cuts, stale bread and the infamous neon-colored “bug juice.”
When my wife, Lisa, and I founded Camp Zeke in 2014, we sought to create a different experience for campers. We wanted a camp that reflected the way we live our own lives. We cook healthy, delicious, locally sourced, sustainable food — so why not offer that to campers?
We also wanted to create an experience rooted in a set of core Jewish values: being kind to others (gemillut hassadim); developing our character (tikkun middot); taking care of our health (shmirat ha’guf); celebrating our community (klal yisrael); and repairing the world (tikkun olam). Through our total commitment to these principles, we developed an alternative version of “camp food” for Camp Zeke, and we’ve seen the impact of healthy choices on all our campers, from the youngest to the oldest.
Many kids come to camp with a limited list of foods they like to eat, including pizza, pasta and chicken nuggets. They often leave with an interest in cooking healthy, fresh foods, and their parents contact us genuinely surprised that their kids are voluntarily eating salad! We find that when kids play a hand in cooking healthy foods, they want to eat those foods. That’s one of the reasons we put out an annual cookbook of everything the campers make in culinary arts classes all summer. Countless parents tell us that their kids come home and rely on these recipes all year, which couldn’t make us any happier.
Here are the values that guide our food choices all summer, both in cooking classes and in our dining room:
1) Eat good food: At Camp Zeke, every meal must be delicious, healthy, visually appealing and kosher. We often discuss with campers how the rules of kashrut, just like the rules of nutrition, dictate what we put into our bodies. We use organic, locally sourced ingredients. With the help of our campers and counselors, we grow some of our herbs and spices on campus and source many ingredients from local farms and markets.
2) No processed food: We never use processed foods, preservatives or ingredients you can’t pronounce. Our chefs make meals daily from scratch, using only the freshest, most nutritious ingredients. The result is delicious food that is good for our bodies and for the environment.
3) Meet everyone’s needs: We accommodate all allergies and have a dedicated team of chefs who specialize in creating meals for campers who are gluten free, vegan or have other dietary needs.
4) Eat in a beautiful place: Our cuisine is complemented by the beautiful setting. Large, picturesque windows overlook rolling green lawns and the pure, spring-fed waters of Hickory Lake.
5) Be a Reducetarian: Reducing our meat consumption is one of the best ways to eat healthier and lower our carbon footprint. All the eggs and milk products we use come from animals that are raised naturally, treated humanely, and live on farms that prioritize animal welfare. We are a meat-light camp, but occasionally serve humanely-raised chicken. Camp Zeke is part of Hazon’s joint efforts with the Humane Society to raise awareness about farm animals. After learning about the environmental impact of factory farming and how animals are treated on factory farms, campers often encourage their families to purchase humanely raised animal products from local farms when they return home from camp.
6) Know where your food comes from: We are active members of the community and rely heavily on ingredients from the local, family-owned farms around camp. Throughout the summer, our campers take trips to the farms that supply our food, so they can see where their food comes from firsthand.
7) Embrace community: In accordance with our value of embracing Jewish community (k’lal yisrael), our kitchen is a warm, friendly and transparent environment, just like the rest of camp. Campers and visitors can poke their heads in, ask lots of questions, and learn more about how our food is prepared.
8) Learn while eating: Our chef and kitchen staff are also food educators, and our campers often help create camp meals through our flagship culinary arts program.
9) Healthy snacks all the time: Campers have three scheduled snacks per day so they have sustained energy for their action-packed schedules. We also have bottomless fruit bowls in the dining room in case campers want to grab a healthy snack at any time.
10) Food is culture: We often eat and cook traditional Jewish foods and contemporary Israeli foods, which we use as a lens into Jewish and Israeli history, land, and culture.
11) Food is joy: Café Zeke is so much more than a dining hall. We work hard to create an upbeat, joyful and song-filled atmosphere in which campers and staff enjoy meals and engaging conversations with other members of the Camp Zeke family.
12) Celebrate our food: Our elaborate Friday night Shabbat dinners are the most special meals at Café Zeke. We decorate the tables and walls with art that campers made during the prior week, and everyone dresses in white and blue to create a festive atmosphere.
At Camp Zeke, we believe that this approach to “camp food” (and camp in general) truly reflects our Jewish values and helps us pass them along to future generations. We hope others look to us as an example of how to teach children to live healthy Jewish lives filled with strength, intention and meaning — and to have fun along the way.
Isaac Mamaysky is executive director of Camp Zeke, which he co-founded with his wife, Lisa Mamaysky, in 2012. For more information about Camp Zeke, visit www.campzeke.org.