Kids get to have all the fun at these food-focused summer camps
Three months of summer seems luxuriously long when you’re a kid. The days stretch out ahead in a vast calendar of sunny days, fun activities and no classrooms. For parents, summertime speeds by as we continue to march along to the daily grind, but all of a sudden we need to add childcare to the list of things to take care of. Thank goodness we live in a place where an array of high-quality summer camps exists, and we can pick and choose from programs that span many interests and ages. But the camp registration hustle is no joke, and it begins now. So read below for our standouts, and rest assured that the bounty of farm-based, garden-based and kitchen-based camps available here in the Monterey Bay area is at your fingertips.
The Hilton Bialek Habitat in Carmel is a stunning project dedicated to environmental stewardship. What started as an effort in 1995 to preserve a bird habitat on Carmel Unified School District property has since grown into a space complete with an amphitheater, a greenhouse, a pond, native plant and bee gardens, classrooms, a wood-fired pizza oven, an orchard and “The Green Building” with solar power, a rainwater catchment system and kitchen classroom. MEarth is a nonprofit that conducts most of its programming at this amazing location. It also offers five summer day camps: Seedlings, Microgreens, EcoCamp Foodie Fun, EcoCamp Explores and Edible Passport, all designed to uphold a philosophy of hands-on environmental education via nature hikes and exploration, gardening, cooking sessions in the kitchen classroom and an array of creative eco-activities. http://mearthcarmel.org
LIFE LAB, SANTA CRUZ
Since 1979, Life Lab has been a leader in garden-based education as an independent nonprofit based on the gorgeous UC Santa Cruz farm. It is at the forefront of promoting ecological literacy, which education director Whitney Cohen describes as being “the difference between knowing about something and knowing something.” When children are immersed in the natural world, actually interacting with it, as opposed to hearing a lecture or reading a book, they gain true understanding.
Summer camp at Life Lab is infused with the philosophy that the garden is where learning comes to life. Each session—the popular Garden Sprouts for 4–6 year olds, Wildlands & Watering Cans for 7–11 year olds, OWLS Camp Leadership for 12–14 year olds and the EAGLES Camp Volunteering for 15–18 year olds—is tailored to be developmentally appropriate and led by staff trained to make “every moment a teachable moment,” says garden education director Amy Carlson.
“Our programs balance structured, science-based activities with exploration, play and connection with the natural world.” Also, know that the fee for your child to attend this camp is, in part, helping to pay for free and low-cost Life Lab programs in other parts of the community, like cooking and eco-literacy classes in Pajaro Valley schools and after-school programs at Life Lab’s Blooming Classroom in Watsonville. https://www.lifelab.org
LIVE EARTH FARM, WATSONVILLE
Off a beautiful country road in the apple orchards of Watsonville sits Live Earth Farm, a fully functioning farm with a robust CSA program and farmers’ market schedule. Farm Discovery at Live Earth is its educational nonprofit, dedicated to empowering “youth and families to build and sustain healthy food, farming, social and natural systems” in a very hands-on way. This year marks the 10th season of summer camps at Farm Discovery, which offer a wide variety of opportunities for all ages to get their hands in the dirt. Little ones ages 3–6 have Sprouts Camp, 6–12 year olds can partake in Art on the Farm and Farm to Table Camps and 11–16 year olds get the Teen Fields & Meals Camp. Leaders in Training & Junior Staff is for ages 14-plus and can fulfill community service requirements. There is an add-on option for Art on the Farm and Farm to Table day camps to have your child stay for the Thursday night pizza-making camp-out and sleepover! No matter the age, all will participate in activities centered on the farm fields and kitchen classroom, with a unique focus on animal care. An emphasis on accessibility and scholarship opportunities makes Live Earth a wonderful option for all. https://liveearthfarm.net/discovery-program/
HAPPY GIRL KITCHEN, PACIFIC GROVE
The three weeks of summer culinary camp at Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove will provide kids with a deep understanding of some important “Food Rules,” specifically Michael Pollan’s wonderfully eloquent bullet points that are helpful in guiding us through a not-so-simple subject matter. For example: 1) Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry. 2) Eat wild foods when you can. 3) Do all of your eating at a table.
Co-owner Jordan Champagne describes the weekly sessions, that are always an all-day affair from 9am–4pm: “We start with breakfast and snacks and art. We study Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” with all of the students and discuss what is real food, healthy food and we ‘grow’ food. We talk about and eat a lot of vegetables and fruits. We bake wholesome foods. We make icings and frosting with all natural food colorings that we make…green from kale and spinach, yellow from turmeric, magenta from hibiscus. We empower the kids to use large chef knives and experiment in the kitchen. We encourage them to play with their food. We visit a local organic farm and milk goats, make ice cream and pick strawberries to make jam with.”
The campers host a “fancy” sit-down dinner for their families, in which they have a hand in every part of the affair, from cooking to baking to serving. “They even provide the entertainment with their own performances of music, dance and comedy. Oh, and of course…we do hula hooping out front of Happy Girl whenever we need a break,” says Champagne. https://happygirlkitchen.com
TEEN KITCHEN PROJECT, APTOS
This extraordinary nonprofit, with its home base in a commercial kitchen in Soquel and a satellite location in Aptos, does some serious work. Every week, teams of teen volunteers gather to cook, pack and deliver nourishing, free meals for cancer patients (38,032 meals total in 2018 to be exact). They also offer a huge variety of weekly Kids Kitchen summer camps geared towards 7–12 year olds, starting June 17 and ending the week of August 5. The weekly sessions have a thematic structure, such as Around the World in 5 Days, with each day focusing on dishes from a different country like Japan, Peru and Morocco. There is also a Restaurant Week session, in which participants open up the “TKP Café” at lunchtime to serve friends and family. One session called Eat the Rainbow Week is geared to the younger set, ages 5–7. During it, nutrition educator and chef Rebecca Mastoris showcases the health benefits gained from eating foods of all colors of the rainbow and cooks these vibrant foods with the kids. https://www.teenkitchenproject.org
BLUE ACES BAKE SHOPPE, SALINAS
Helmed by Salinas native and pastry chef Adriana Jimenez, Blue Aces Bake Shoppe in Oldtown Salinas is coming up on its fourth year of offering the community creative, whimsical treats. Last year, a five-part summer baking series for kids took place right there on site, but this season it is looking for a bigger venue to be able to offer a wider range of events and classes. Regardless of where it ends up, referencing last year’s Cupcake Decorating and Piping Skills class for ages 7–13 is enough to know that the 2019 summer curriculum will be just as fun and festive. Icing, buttercream and fondant are just some of the ingredients. All tools and equipment, plus lunch, are provided. But keep in mind that “no snacks will be provided this day because we will be sampling cupcakes all day!” says Jimenez, “This class is for kids only. Sorry parents, we get to have all the fun.” Blue Aces also offers private kids classes for groups of eight or more. https://www.blueacesbakeshoppe.com
Amber Turpin is a freelance food and travel writer based in the Santa Cruz Mountains.