What started with a conversation about how to improve a 4-H camp’s food has evolved into an integrated program that teaches kids about food, nutrition, and exercise and benefits the local economy.
Summer 2012 was the second consecutive year campers at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Front Royal have enjoyed a healthier menu centered around locally grown fruits and vegetables and locally raised meats. The 4-H center, which relied solely on food purchased from large distributors in the past, is the first such center in the state to incorporate local foods in its meal planning.
“Serving food from local farmers is mutually beneficial to us and the local economy,” said Win Iden, the center’s program director.
The center hosts more than 2,400 campers and volunteers during the summer months and serves up to 11 meals per camper each week for a grand total of more than 25,000 meals throughout the summer.
In addition to making regular trips to the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Dayton, Va., to purchase seasonal fruits and vegetables, the center’s staff has formed relationships with Page County Grown, Flatrock Farm in Marshall, Va., and Fauquier Education Farm in Warrenton, Va., to supply food to the camp.
“It is highly unlikely that one farmer could supply all the food needs for the camp,” said Francie Kennedy, project coordinator for Shenandoah Valley Farm-to-Table. “Programs like this provide smaller farmers the opportunity to work together to serve a larger market and make a positive economic impact in the local community.”
In addition to the logistics of identifying and purchasing products from multiple farmers, the center had to revamp its traditional camp menu to one flexible enough to take advantage of the seasonal availability of fruits and vegetables, said Kenner Love, agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Rappahannock County. Berries available in June may not be as plentiful in late July, when tomatoes, sweet corn, and potatoes are coming into season.
Storage and food preparation also had to be considered. “The foods being purchased are not processed, which means more time is required for on-site preparation,” Love said. “We have gone from serving tater tots that come out of a bag to buying potatoes that need to be washed, sliced, and roasted.”
At each meal, campers learn which foods are grown locally, and sometimes they even get to meet the farmer who grew it.
“We want to teach the kids where their food comes from. Even if it is not local, we want them to have a better understanding of how it got to their table,” Iden said.
Each day after lunch, campers participate in a series of interactive workshops that promote healthy food choices and physical activity. The campers learn about everything from the difference between healthy and less healthy food choices and how much sugar is in a bottle of soda, to the importance of measurement and dining etiquette. Many sessions incorporate physical activity that varies daily to help reinforce the messages.
“We hope these sessions make the kids think a little bit about what they are putting in their bodies,” said Doug Harpole, 4-H youth development agent in Fauquier County. “We want them to make smart nutritional choices and to eat healthier.”
The camp staff knows they are making a difference. “We started to receive positive feedback almost immediately,” Iden said. “The new food choices have been a big hit, especially the fresh berries and the sausage served at breakfast.”
From locating farmers and preparing food to creating and delivering the curriculum, many people have played important roles in the program's success.
“The program is successful because so many have embraced the concept,” Harpole said. “This has truly been a collaborative effort, combining the efforts and talents of staff from across Extension, including 4-H, agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and community viability.”
Camp staff and Extension agents are already looking at ways to expand the program in 2013 to include even more local producers, which will make an even larger impact in the community.
Eating locals foods at 4-H camp has many benefits for campers.
To complement the local foods program, the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center staff established a garden to teach campers about growing food.
Campers can take a gardening class with by Assistant Program Director Avery Born and Warren County Master Gardener volunteers. Campers help maintain the garden and learn about ecology, soils, water, and insects.
In 2012, Molina Healthcare donated $1 million to support the National 4-H Healthy Living Initiative, which promotes programs designed to address nutrition, physical fitness, and other wellness issues among today’s youth.
Molina employees joined campers at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center to learn about its efforts to promote the benefits of eating locally sourced foods and making healthy food choices.
“We are very grateful for Molina’s support for our program as well as other Healthy Living programs across the country,” said Win Iden, program director at the 4-H center.
For more than 80 years, Virginia 4-H camping has proven to be an effective approach to teaching life skills to youth. Each year, more than 27,000 young people ages 9 to 18 participate in 4-H camps at Virginia's six 4-H educational centers.
The local foods program at the Northern Virginia 4-H Educational Center would not have gotten off the ground without the contributions from the following individuals:
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