From Bug Juice to Salad Bars: How Camp Food Has Changed

Kids have gotten to see where their food comes from firsthand with Ramah Day Camp’s farm-to-table program. Photo provided

For Jewish kids generations over, summertime has meant one thing: Packing your bags, saying goodbye to Mom and Dad and promising to write (whether you actually did is another story), and heading to camp.

And while the camp experience itself probably hasn’t changed all that much, there are elements that have had some noticeable tweaks over the years — especially food.

You may think of guzzling saccharine “bug juice” or scarfing down grilled cheese sandwiches, but food at camp has become a little more complex, said Jon Schulman, operations director at URJ Camp Harlam.

Back when he was a Harlam camper, he ate foods like Salisbury steak, and salad bars pretty much didn’t exist. Now, he said, they’ve focused on serving fewer frozen foods and providing more options with nutritional value that kids will still enjoy eating.

“We’re living in a more sophisticated time where a lot of people are really watching what they’re eating,” he said.

With that mindset, they’ve focused on giving campers healthier alternatives or options as main entrees. The camp has made some adjustments as far as providing these options. Salad bars offer fresh vegetables, while breakfast bars give kids the choices of granola and yogurt with fruit and pastries.

More campers are following vegetarian and vegan lifestyles or following various dietary restrictions than when he was a camper, Schulman noted. As such, the camp has strived to provide options for those diets.

There are even two staff speciality food liaisons whose jobs are to focus on those that have dietary restrictions are getting what they need.

But, there are still those classic camp food traditions, like Harlam’s famous “yellow meal,” which consists of chicken patties, mashed potatoes and corn.

Staples like grilled cheese are still a favorite among campers, but many camps have strived to provide healthier choices through the years.

“We’ve been serving that meal since I was a camper,” he said, “so from 20, 30 years we’ve been serving that meal. When we do surveying of our campers, that tends to be one of the more popular ones.”

Harlam isn’t the only one making menu adjustments over the years.

Camp Galil has put a focus on making foods in-house rather than in-microwave.

Breakfast foods like scones and challahs they used to order in, the kitchen staff — two 21-year-old staff members responsible for meal planning, ordering, and kitchen management through a unique program — now make in-house, noted Molly Wernick, assistant director of community engagement.

That also allows them to have some fun. Campers engage in a friendly competition each week for pizza lunches on Fridays, which follows more Shabbat-related traditions at the camp. Each Friday morning starts with muffins — she said the kids have perfected a muffin-trading strategy to ensure they get the ones they like — and pizza for lunch, with a traditional Shabbat dinner.

But the pizzas, which are made in-house as opposed to the frozen Ellio’s pizzas Wernick remembers as a camper, are part of a larger game. The age group that sings the loudest and with the most ruach (spirit) at the songleading session that afternoon gets to have its pizza first.

Making foods themselves has allowed the kids to become engaged in the process, as they can see what foods are growing and even help pick them, which may encourage them to try new and different vegetables.

“There’s been more ownership over doing creative things with the food we can make ourselves,” she said. “The kids then have an ownership over the food they’re eating. … It brings it back to our old kibbutz tradition and empowering our kids to build the worlds they want to see, and the way they eat and grow food is a very strong part of that tradition.”

The camp, too, has focused more on accommodating kids with different dietary lifestyles and restrictions. If any campers decide they want to try vegetarianism, they can do that there.

“Camp’s a great place to explore how your own values influence the way that you eat,” she said. “If everyone’s coming to camp to have a great summer and along the way they discover something they’re passionate about and we have the ability to support that, how can we not?”

In the Poconos, Camp Ramah has introduced new foods like kale salad, tofu salad and a permanent upgraded salad bar with fresh veggies.

They, too, have moved away from frozen, boxed items and focus more on fresh foods, including for breakfast, which Executive Director Rabbi Joel Seltzer said includes hand-flipped French toast, pancakes and matzah brie.

As a “nut-sensitive” camp, they have a special diet coordinator and a special diet chef that help accommodate many types of allergies and food-sensitivities, he said.

Providing healthier foods relates to the camp’s mission of “creating life-long Jewish connections one happy camper at a time.”

“In order for our campers to be happy, they need to be healthy as well,” he said.

Ramah Day Camp has made changes that focus more on fresh foods through a nature program that allows the young campers to grow vegetables in the garden that become part of the meals they eat through a farm-to-table initiative.

The kids love it, said Pamela Fischer, one of the kitchen heads (there called rosh mitbach).

“The meals have changed in a huge way since I’ve started,” she said, which was 12 years ago.

Most meals are vegetarian-friendly, with soy nut butter and jelly sandwiches available every day. And on days there are meat lunches, which Fischer said is rare, there are alternatives like hummus and pita with a hard-boiled egg.

And other changes like revamping their practice of serving ice cream five days a week as a sweet treat and serving foods like vegetarian chicken nuggets have become the norm as they try to focus on giving the kids healthy foods.

The farm-to-table program is a big winner among the campers, she noted, as they love to work in the garden and take foods home, too.

“It’s just amazing how the kids love it,” she said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t think, but … .”

The same is true at Golden Slipper Camp, where the food is donated by the food industry.

We are celebrating our 70th year in camping, and as far as things have changed a lot more children have allergies,” noted Nanci Gilberg, needs coordinator. “So we have to be more tolerant of children who have milk allergies, gluten free, vegan, vegetarians, so we try to adjust our menus to facilitate their needs.

But while things have changed, the camp has maintained some well-known traditions the campers look forward to, such as barbecue every Saturday and serving favorites like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup or tacos.

And while grilled cheese sandwiches are still camp staples, bug juice has not met the same fate.

“Absolutely not,” Wernick adamantly answered when asked if Galil still serves the sweet stuff. Campers are treated to one can of soda with Shabbat dinner each week, but the remainder of the time is focused on good ol’ H2O, she said.

Camp Ramah hasn’t served bug juice since — very specifically — 2008, Seltzer added. 

At Golden Slipper, however, Oh, of course! Bug juice — forgot about that, Gilberg laughed. We always have that.; 215-832-0740


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