Farm Camp: Kids Get Crafty with Kale

Five sets of little hands are elbow-deep in a voluminous silver mixing bowl. They toss recently picked and chopped chard leaves in olive oil, then fan the greens onto baking sheets prepped for the oven.

“I like kale chips, so I think I’ll like chard chips!” exclaims a petite sous chef, as she scatters sea salt across the greens like confetti.

These kids are spending a week at Zenger Farm, an urban working farm in southeast Portland that has been offering farm and cooking camps for seven years. At Zenger Farm’s Summer Camp, kids of all ages till garden rows, write recipes and whip up mouthwatering meals with farm-fresh ingredients.

“Since 2005, we’ve added a couple of weeks each summer to meet the demand,” says Education Director Alice Froehlich.

Last summer, more than 200 children participated in eight weeks of day camps, each camp lasting five days. About 20 percent of those campers received a scholarship. (The camps cost between $245 and $285.)

Zenger Farm offers year-round education programs, including field trips and seasonal classes like Super Soil Scientists and Critters in the Crops, to provide city kids with hands-on opportunities to learn about sustainable agriculture, wetland ecology and healthy eating. The summer camps are an opportunity to enhance that learning. With more than 100 varieties of annual vegetables in six acres of fields and a wetland full of creatures to capture the imagination, the natural (and edible) wonders on the farm are endless.

“Spending five days in a row on the farm at the peak of the growing season gives kids a deeper connection to the land and the food,” says Froehlich. Each camp program is structured by age group and a farm-friendly topic.

Little Chickens, a camp for first graders, focuses on farm animals. “Last year they made friendship bracelets for the chickens and identified a chicken each day that they would spend time with,” says Froehlich. “They have a strong desire to be around animals at that age, and it’s nice to able to facilitate that,” she adds.

Farm Friends, a popular camp for youth entering second and third grade, rotates campers among three activities: tending chickens, gardening and prepping snacks. When campers hear it’s their turn to hobnob with the flock of 30 laying hens—Rhode Island Reds, Americanas and Black Australorps—they whoop and skip toward the mobile coops.

A second group of campers uproots weeds and snips fronds of Rhubarb Red Chard for the afternoon snack. One camper plops down by a cluster of colorful herbs and proclaims the plant is borage, an annual herb with leaves that taste like salty cucumbers.

“The camp gives kids a vocabulary to talk about fresh produce,” says Froehlich. “They are learning how to harvest and process vegetables, and they gain an understanding of seasonal foods.”

Culinary acumen really shines in Cooking Camp, for fourth through sixth graders, and Chef de Cuisine, for seventh through ninth graders. Every morning, campers zigzag the farm with a short list of ingredients, gathering herbs, fresh eggs, heirloom vegetables and edible flowers to create a spectacular lunch.

“The idea is that we are all going to eat together and enjoy this food that we created,” says Froehlich. When campers harvested their first tomato of the year, “we tried to divide it into fifteen pieces,” says camper Jocelyn Johnson. “It was just a tiny cherry tomato,” she explains, “so we put it into our recipe instead—a Spanish potato omelet.” Even with many cooks in the kitchen, every camper has a sense of pride in his and her accomplishments.

Froehlich and the farm educators get supportive feedback from parents every week: How did you get my kid to eat kale? My kid wants to make a frittata at home! My son never liked carrots before, but now he loves carrots! “Those kinds of comments I hear a lot,” says Froehlich.

A small group of Chef de Cuisine campers heads outside to pick and prep for a Greek feast. The first task is to harvest onions for potato packets. Each camper reaches down and triumphantly tugs giant green stalks from the dirt. Six onions fly into the air.

The main course for the feast is shish kabobs—lamb for meat eaters and zucchini for vegetarians. Lyndsey MacKenzie, a farm educator, gathers the meat eaters in the indoor kitchen to prep. “This is the lamb we are going to be using today—what part of the lamb is it?” she asks the group. She points to the package, and they pipe “rib chop” in unison.

MacKenzie then explains that the lamb is from Deck Family Farm, where the farmer rears pasture-raised lambs and other animals. “Who wants to touch the lamb?” she asks. Nine hands shoot up.

A little while later in the outdoor kitchen, the cooking prep approaches a crescendo. The kabobs move from the grill to the plate and a camper down the row remarks that the zucchini smells like summertime. “You can actually taste the herbs,” says Anna Walker.

The final dish, a grilled apple crisp, sweetened with honey from bee hives on the farm, is a standout favorite. “The honey tastes like paradise,” says Jocelyn Johnson.

At the end of the meal, the budding chefs sit under a willowy fir tree, sharing their “firsts” for the day—several picked their first onions, while others identified and chopped herbs like parsley and dill for the first time. When asked if they had fun cooking today, the campers respond with a jubilant chorus of “yes!”

Edible Portland | Summer 2012

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