The end of lunchtime at Great Kids Farm and Forest Camp looks a bit different from most cafeterias.
Trash at each of the tables has been separated into three buckets – compost, food waste, and liquid waste – before it is brought up to the front of the cafeteria.
“Alright, it’s that time for our compost and food waste to weigh in,” announces Laura Menyuk, Great Kids Farms’ camp director, in the tone of a game show host presenting a special bonus category.
“On the count of three, you’re all gonna point to a counselor that you want to be our chant leader today.”
With the kids having chosen their victim, the chant begins. “We will, we will weigh you,” they sing to the tune of Queen’s iconic “We Will Rock You.”
Everyone cheers as the total is declared: four pounds of compost and 0.1 pounds of meat waste.
The cheers are warranted. The children have just cut the amount of compost in half from the day before.
Getting school kids to cheer about reducing food waste takes a special kind of summer camp. Luckily, the Great Kids Farm and Forest Camp is just that.
The farm didn’t use to have a summer camp. In fact, it didn’t use to be a farm at all.
Located off Route 40 in Catonsville, the 33-acre property was initially bought by George Bragg, a formerly enslaved man, in 1911.
Bragg used the property as an orphanage and agricultural educational center for Black children until the 1950s, when the foster care system took over.
The land was then bought by the Baltimore City Schools, who used the property as a plant nursery and nature center before hiring a group of Farm to School specialists in 2018 to transition it into an educational hub.
The aim: to connect city students to nature and food systems.
“If we want to prime students to have positive experiences trying healthy foods in the cafeteria, it’s only fair that we work to give them experiences that will really excite them,” said Anne Rosenthal, one of the Farm to School specialists.
The program started small – essentially just as a destination for elementary school field trips – but soon expanded.
“A day on the farm may be their first experience ever thinking about how our food system works” – Anne Rosenthal.
Today their offerings range from all-day field trips to virtual offerings like “Facetime the Farmer” developed during the pandemic.
The farm is owned by Baltimore City Public Schools and operated by its Food and Nutrition Services (FNS).
The programs are exclusively available to city students and free of charge. Last year, almost 8,500 kids participated.
“For a lot of them, a day on the farm may be their first experience ever thinking about how our food system works,” said Rosenthal.
“It’s really transformative to see students pick something directly off the vine and put it in their mouth because many students, it’s never occurred to them that this is what happens.”
Three years ago, the farm launched the summer camp, which offers four one-week-long sessions to rising 3rd and 5th graders in traditional city schools.
Throughout the week, students engage in various outdoor programs, learning the basics of animal husbandry, farm maintenance, and forest ecosystems.
Julie Lewis, the mother of three-time camper Arlo Frey, appreciates the hands-on approach.
“He’s learned much more than he would inside the classroom,” she said. “One day, they harvested like 65 pounds of potatoes. You’d think a kid wouldn’t want to harvest potatoes. But no, he loved it. He asked to do another row.”
“You’d think a kid wouldn’t want to harvest potatoes. But no, he loved it” – Parent Julie Lewis.
The potatoes went directly to another activity: making french fries from scratch. The tactile way the staff presents new ideas fosters a sense of curiosity, not fear or disgust, among campers.
“There’s a very common expression in tasting circles called ‘Don’t yuck my yum,’” said Menyuk. “So we try to have kids move away from saying ‘that’s nasty or gross.’ Instead, we encourage them to get curious about it.”
That aim comes to fruition as Laura Genello, another Farm to School specialist, explains how to peel and cut the potatoes.
Suddenly, a cry rings out.
“Wait, this one is purple. We’re gonna eat the first ever purple french fry?”
Though some of the kids had never eaten a purple potato before, soon they were scrambling for the few purple fries left in a sea of golden yellow.
The same curiosity manifests itself in other ways.
“I saw a big dead crawfish at the creek. Its exoskeleton came off when we were looking at it. And we saw its yellow blood,” enthuses one camper.
Another, Carmen, sits hunched over a book identifying mushrooms. She and her friend, Kelis Veney, carefully match the mushrooms they collected on their forest walk to the ones in the pages.
“We’re gonna see its spores to make sure it’s a good mushroom,” Carmen says, holding up one from her collection. “This one’s a Turkey Tail, and it’s actually edible. But this one’s dead.”
No staff member prompted the mushroom project; it was the product of letting the kids explore and interact with the farm in their way.
Combating Food Insecurity
On a larger scale, Great Kids Farm recognizes its role in the greater food ecosystem.
Baltimore has long experienced problems with food insecurity, which were compounded during the pandemic.
According to the mayor’s office, food insecurity rose from 18% to 22% because of the pandemic, with 33% of city children being food insecure.
“I don’t think anyone on our staff believes that our farm is the solution to food insecurity,” said Rosenthal. “But we do think empowering students with knowledge, with an understanding of concepts like food sovereignty and land sovereignty, can yield huge benefits in the long term.”
To that end, the farm also tries to build connections between what students learn on the farm and their everyday lives. One part of that is inviting cafeteria managers to join students on field trips and during camp.
“Watching them make a mess and try to make their own food makes me happy,” said Shakera Harris, the cafeteria manager at Baltimore Design School who is in her second year with the camp.
“I didn’t get that opportunity growing up. So for them to be able to make their own pizza, I like that,” Harris explained.
“Our programs are still mostly spread through word of mouth” – Camp Director Laura Menyuk.
Menyuk worries that many city parents and teachers are still unaware of the summer camp and how easy it is for students to participate in its activities. While the camp has the capacity for 36 campers, they’ve averaged about 30 this summer.
“Our programs are still mostly spread through word of mouth,” she pointed out.
“I always like to tell people, let’s stop being the best-kept secret of Baltimore City schools.”
There are still a few spots available for the final two weeks of camp, which runs from July 24 to July 27 and from July 31 to August 3.