By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
At Camp Ondessonk’s dining hall, the salad bar is not an afterthought.
“Our salad bar is a big deal here,” says Food Service Director Dru Kee. “I estimate that about 70 to 75 percent of our campers get a salad.”
Kee attributes this outpouring of love for salad to the quality of the vegetables, which are grown right outside in Camp Ondessonk’s 1,600-square-foot garden. The garden, now in its fourth year, provides a steady stream of produce to the kitchen at the camp.
This year, there are seven varieties of tomatoes, including cherry, heirloom and hybrid varieties; five types of cucumbers; two different kales; three varieties of bell peppers, two lettuces and rainbow chard. Campers also get to enjoy watermelons and muskmelons.
The garden was Kee’s brainchild, and he’s the one who puts most of the sweat equity into it year-round. After being exposed to great produce from neighboring farms, he decided the camp needed its own garden. He taught himself about farming and slowly built up the plot, expanding it a little more each year.
The goal was to give campers access to nutrient-rich, great-tasting produce, so that “eat your veggies” isn’t a chore, but an invitation to enjoy great food.
In the process, it’s also saved the camp money.
“We get much higher quality produce for a much, much lower price,” Kee says. “Every time we’ve put in an addition, it’s paid for itself.”
Kee’s growing year begins in winter. At first, he started plants under a few grow lights on a dining hall table, but has since graduated to a 120-square-foot greenhouse he built himself a few years ago. There, he starts seedlings early – otherwise, there wouldn’t be vegetables ready for summer campers in June.
“We already have tomatoes,” he says. Because of the greenhouse, he’s capable of growing some vegetables all year round.
He’s able to put camp-sourced produce on the table for most of the summer. “One day, I’d like to have the salad bar be exclusively grown at camp. Right now, there are a few items, like pickled banana peppers, that we have to get elsewhere.”
Wherever possible, Kee relies on sustainable farming practices. He mulches plants with butcher paper and straw, composts vegetable scraps and puts in plants such as fennel that attract pollinators. He introduces predatory insects that feed on garden pests and relies on manure from the camp’s horses for fertilizer.
As Kee sees it, these are simply common-sense steps.
“It’s cheaper,” he says. “Sustainability is simply using what you have. It’s easier than constantly going in with commercial fertilizer or toxic pesticides. Sometimes it’s a little bit more work upfront, but it pays off throughout the season.”
While Kee does most of the gardening himself, he does enlist kids in the camp’s teen leadership programs to help out; it’s an opportunity to grow their leadership skills alongside the kale and the chard.
He talks to them about the financial end of the operation – how much money they save by eating extra-locally.
There are also certain lessons you can only learn the hard way.
Kee was explaining to a group of teens about what happens to lettuce when it “bolts” or goes to seed, something that happens sooner during an extra-hot summer like this one. Lettuce leaves from a bolted plant become bitter and inedible.
“I had them taste a leaf from the bottom of the plant, and then from a leaf nearer to the top, where it had bolted,” Kee says. “You could see their faces scrunch up as they chewed it. And they understood immediately why you want to be careful that those leaves don’t end up in the salad bar.”
Kee hopes to expand the educational aspect of the garden. Francesca Butler has been hired as the camp’s farm-to-table manager, with a goal of introducing more campers to the joys of gardening, so they can take the skills back with them to their own home gardens.
“It will be hard – campers are pretty busy – but we’re trying to come up with ways they can do it in their spare time, as a voluntary thing,” Kee says.
Butler also is working with farmers in the area to bring in local produce that Kee doesn’t have room to grow.
“We’re getting six bushels of peaches from a local orchard,” Kee says.
The camp is also creating a partnership with the Little Egypt Alliance of Farmers, a regional consortium of growers.
And throughout, Kee will keep growing the farm’s capabilities to sustain and nourish the camp.
“It’s a labor of love,” he says.