Food for thought: Better take on camp lunch

NORTH PHILADELPHIA - August 4, 2010

Listen to this menu: Panko crusted chicken, mushroom risotto and fish tacos. Sounds like something you'd find at an upscale Center City restaurant, right?

What if we told you those were just some of the lunches served this summer at a camp for underprivileged kids?

Thanks to some local James Beard Award (The Oscars of Food) winning chefs, this change in their diet is creating even bigger changes outside the lunchroom.

This is dream camp, a five week summer program at Girard College that teaches kids everything from violin to chess. Since the camp opened its doors in 1998, Executive Director Michael Rouse says there was a major problem.

"This is dream camp, so we're bringing in Hollywood screenwriters, executive chefs, professional musicians, but going to the cafeteria over the past few years was the most un-dream like thing," Rouse said.

Rouse was convinced the fat and sugar laden meals distributed to campers in a traditional cafeteria style lunch line were contributing to major behavioral problems among the campers. At least 20 kids were reprimanded every day.

So Rouse turned to his friend, Marc Vetri, owner of three of Philadelphia's most acclaimed restaurants, Vetri, Osteria and Amis. He asked Vetri and his partners, Jeff Michaud and Jeff Benjamin, to design a healthy menu costing no more than the federally allotted 2.66 per camper.

But Rouse and Vetri knew healthy food wasn't the only change needed to truly transform behavior. A cafeteria style lunch was hindering social interaction, manners and etiquette. The solution? Offer the lunch family style.

Initially, there was resistance from federal officials overseeing the camp's meals.

"Trying to change a line of thinking that's been in existence since the mid 50's," Benjamin of the Vetri Foundation said.

But persistence paid off in a big way.

Now, instead of a Sloppy Joes and tater tots, campers enjoy handmade hamburgers, eggplant fries, fresh fruit, and salad.

"A lot of these kids haven't even seen vegetables out of a can," Michaud said.

And campers aren't complaining.

"I've never been to a camp or school that had this good food," camper Jason said

Gone is the cafeteria style eating. Here, campers eat family style, passing food around the table with a please and thank you and to encourage interaction, each day campers are given a topic to discuss.

An example - Shark Week.

Rouse says, over the past 5 weeks, behavioral infractions have dropped from 20 a day to 5 a day or less.

Vetri used only fresh food and came under budget.

Rouse and the Vetri Foundation want to see this take on lunch implemented in schools.

LINK: http://vetrifoundation.org/

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