Lifting an empty plate to the sky, a camp counselor proclaims loudly, “Attention campers! We have another member of the Clean Plate Club!” Cheers erupt across the entire dining hall. Throughout the course of lunch, this announcement is repeated often, as camper after camper finishes their meal and takes his or her place in that venerated association known as the “Clean Plate Club,” all to the sound of applauding peers and camp staffers. Every meal at camp offers this same spirit of celebration and encouragement. The dining hall will soon empty and the children, bellies full, will move on to their next activity – but not without a chorus of “Thank you, Miss Connie! Thank you, cooks!” echoing from the hall through the serving window of the kitchen.
“I love kids and I love food. I get to cook food for kids. What more could I want?” reflects Connie Tipton, who has been the head cook at CAP’s Camp AJ for four years. “There’s no meal that they don’t like – they tend to enjoy them all. We watch to see what’s working and we keep it up. And if we notice that there are any dishes they are less enthusiastic about, we try to replace those with something that works.”
Tipton (“Miss Connie” to the campers) aims to craft menus and create meals that result in as many “Clean Plate Club” initiations as possible, because every clean plate represents a child who is not hungry. CAP’s camps are both sites for the Kentucky Department of Education’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), which means that a significant number of campers are dealing with food insecurity issues when school is not in session. At Camps AJ and Shawnee, almost 80 percent of campers meet the state eligibility requirements of this initiative, so the 13 meals and seven snacks each child receives during the week are an essential ingredient in their camp experience.
Sally Collins, who cooks for the campers and staff of Camp Shawnee explains, “They do a lot of activities – swimming and hiking and going out on the canoe. We make sure they are well-fed.” The opportunity to spend a week without worrying about the source of their next meal allows the children the freedom to fully embrace all the adventures that camp affords. For at least one week during the summer, these children are given the gift of their own childhood.
“Several years ago,” remembers Tipton, “there was a child who started the week hiding food in his pockets – he would put his apple and other children’s leftovers in his pockets during the meals. We tried to explain to him, ‘You don’t have to do that, you know. We’re going to have something else to eat later.’ And before the week was over, he knew he was going to get fed. He just wasn’t used to being able to count on that next meal being there.”
There is nothing that motivates and satisfies the kitchen staff and volunteers more than when the children enjoy and appreciate a meal. Tipton explains, “They get excited a lot. They love ‘dino’ nugget day (chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs). And then they just go crazy over the pizza. I thought we could make something a little different with the pizza, so now we get French bread and we make individual pizzas for every camper. And they absolutely love them!”
“I love working with the children,” Collins adds. “All the food I cook for them is good, but I think they especially like my spaghetti. That is my favorite meal to fix for them because I know it is something they are going to love.”
As much as Tipton welcomes the sound of clean plates being hoisted and words of gratitude from the campers, her favorite time of every meal happens just before that. “After everyone goes through the line, they’ve gotten their food, and they’re sitting at the table, there’s this moment when no one is talking and the dining room falls quiet. They are eating. That’s the part of the day I love most."