When you think of camp food, what comes to mind? A buffet line filled with mystery meat stew, breaded fish sticks, and a green Jello surprise? Perhaps some country fried steak with a side of powder mashed potatoes, and generic brand kool-aid? Before I started working here at the CVEEC, I was with you.
At many camps, the typical weekly menu consists entirely of “heat and serve” foods like frozen tater tots and canned fruit cocktail. What’s great about the CVEEC, is that we have slowly evolved through the years to incorporate fresher, non-processed foods to the menu. With sustainability being a part of our mission as an environmental education center, our food system continually seeks to implement additional earth friendly practices. We’ve come a long way and I can confidently say that we are now functioning as a model sustainable food service.
Tasks & Staff
Our food service crew provides all the food for the residential education program we run weekly from our EEC campus; they also provide some of the food for the Conservancy’s Extraordinary Spaces program, Stanford House, weekends, special event programming, and other internal park events. All of this is accomplished by Rich and Devon, our two full time chefs, three part time kitchen staff, and Larkin, our executive catering chef. Somehow, the six of them maneuver around our one small Lipscomb Campus kitchen and produce the delectable food for all of these programs. Joanna, our catering coordinator, oversees the big picture, and balances the needs of our kitchen with the marketing and guest services aspects. In addition, we rely on our wonderful park volunteers to help with larger events.
Made From Scratch
The amount of food we make from scratch is astounding. If we can make it in house, we do. Our menus today feature homemade breads, pizza crusts, salads, salad dressings, soups, and sauces. We roast and slice our own deli meats, slice our own cheeses, and even make our own hamburger buns. Fresh fruits and vegetables are served at each meal, nothing is processed, and nothing comes in a can. We serve hearty potato wedges, not frozen tots, our spaghetti sauce starts with raw tomatoes, even our ranch dressing is made from scratch using buttermilk, onion, and our own combination of spices.
Having worked in a variety of restaurants, Rich and Devin bring a wide variety of skills to the resident program menus. Rich’s personal philosophy on food is serving food that he would serve to his family. Seeing kids devour home cooked food is what makes everything worth it. Kid friendly food isn’t just chicken nuggets and fries from the drive thru, it can be homemade seasoned chicken with a side of steamed vegetables. The food here is highly praised by the kids who attend our camps, many of them ask the chefs to come back home with them and cook at their schools.
Eliminating processed foods from the menu has also made it significantly easier to deal with special dietary restrictions. Rather than sorting through a list of nine hundred ingredients on a package, the chefs can immediately tell you whether the bread contains gluten; they made it! Overall, the quality of our food has increased infinitely, and we are continuing to build more made from scratch items into the weekly routine.
We Buy Local
Not only are we using raw ingredients, but most of the food is local. We’ve developed a relationship with our local produce guy, who supplies us with produce from neighboring farms. For other ingredients, we work with a nearby food supply company based in Stow, the next town over. Intermittently, we get produce from Greenfield Berry Farm which is part of the Countryside Conservancy farm lease program right here in the National Park. Red Basket farm contributes food as well. We hope to increase the amount of produce we buy from these Conservancy farms and are currently working though a negotiation process.
Sustainability is evident in every aspect of our food service program. Everything from the amount of energy we consume, our produce suppliers, our menus, our composting; everything is sustainable.
Buying locally cuts down on food miles or energy used to transport our food. By using tomatoes from Northeast Ohio instead of Guatemala, travel time and energy is cut significantly. Many processed foods have been shipped around the country before they land with a supplier. By making more food from scratch, we have more control of where the raw ingredients come from.
After meals, we dispose of our waste as sustainably as possible. We compost paper napkins, fruit and vegetable scraps, and egg shells on site for our hoop house. All other food scraps including cooked scraps and meat are composted at a nearby high-heat compost facility. Our glass, plastics, and paper can all be recycled. After all that, the waste we send away to landfills is minimal.
Recently, the National Parks Foundation started a movement called “Food for Parks.” The goal is to do away with the unhealthy food vendors, and switch to a more sustainable, nutritious, way of eating. Check out the full article here. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is far ahead of this curve. Our sustainable practices have been around long enough that they are now just a part of how we function on a daily basis. We scored above and beyond what was asked on the sustainable checklist which indicates we are real forerunners in this sustainable movement.
Though we do buy what we can from local vendors, growing food right here on site is what we are striving to do. This past summer, we did use produce from our hoop house, but we are looking to increase that amount. In the pilot year, we did not collaborate enough with the kitchen staff to balance out yield versus use. This summer we hope to add more herbs to the growing list and cut back on the more sparsely used hot peppers. We also hope to increase the winter yield of the hoop house; we are currently growing spinach and swiss chard, but several of the beds are vacant.
With the addition of a kitchen garden around the hoop house, the total produce yield will greatly increase. EEC staff is currently meeting with some master gardeners to finalize plans for the garden, and eventually set the plan in motion. Funding for the garden is still an issue as well as the garden’s regularly scheduled maintenance. We hope to keep you updated as these decisions are made. In the meantime, we are working with the many Countryside Conservancy farms in the National Park toward the possibility of buying more of their produce.
Although most of our food production functions as a well oiled machine, we are constantly looking for ways to increase production and increase sustainability. Space is our biggest limiting factor. Because all of these operations are currently run out of a single kitchen, there is not much room for expansion. With the renovation of the White Pines Campus on our wish list, we are hoping to be able to better utilize the kitchen facilities there. Until then, we will continue to implement small changes the best we can.
What is the moral of this CVEEC story? (Every story we tell here has a moral). Comment and let us know what you think.