Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu is quiet in its off-season — or quieter, at least, if you’re used to seeing the space filled to bursting with energetic young campers. In the fall, it’s populated mostly by groups of adults who come through to use the grounds as a conference center, and there’s a distinct calmness in the air, a sense of relaxation that comes along with shorter days and southern light.
The garden built by the camp, which is run by Wilshire Boulevard Temple, is still producing, however, a lively, vital corner of green, lush with the fruits of fall: spinach and kale and late-season lettuce, one last melon ripening slowly in the field. The produce picked between now and the start of first session next summer will be donated to Food Share, Ventura County’s food bank. When campers return in June, they’ll be eating from the garden’s produce, which will include everything from a variety of greens to summer favorites like tomatoes and corn.
The garden is a grand experiment for the camp and its staff, providing much more than sustenance. Leadership campers — a select group of incoming 10th-graders — built the first four raised beds out of cinder blocks in 2011, but the soil languished in their absence. As it happened, around this time a former camper named Sara Kosoff was looking to leave a position doing food systems education and thinking about, as she puts it, “a little vacation in Malibu.”
What Kosoff proposed last year was more than just a garden. She suggested a four-day program introducing campers to the basics of the food system. It was too late at that point to add anything in for the current session, but Hess Kramer was interested. In October 2012, officials called Kosoff to propose “a full-fledged garden program” with her at its helm.
Kosoff and Hess Kramer worked with an organization called Amir, a nonprofit dedicated to creating gardens in North American Jewish summer camps (though it’s interested in expanding to non-Jewish institutions as well). With the help of Amir and donations from local landscaper Greg Epstein, they were able to build an additional 10 beds on Hess Kramer’s property and four more at Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s other camp up the road, Gindling Hilltop.
The camp worked the garden and its produce into programming in a variety of ways: by serving the fruits of its harvests at lunch, giving campers the opportunity to work there as one of their afternoon activities or chugs, and by using it to start conversations about the issues surrounding food and agriculture. Kosoff rotated through the lunchroom every day, sitting with different groups and talking to them about food, farming and, crucially, food waste.
Like any good organic gardener, Kosoff built a compost bin, this one specially designed with the help of counselor Emily Alfred, to have succulents growing out from its wood-pallet walls, making it a living structure as well as a home for rinds and scraps.
“There’s a lot of food waste that happens in the dining room,” Kosoff said. “We can’t take the volume of all of that waste, but we were able to use it as a tool. So I would sit with a different cabin every day and talk to them about why we’re doing composting and take certain things from their table. When we had a barbecue, we would take their watermelon rinds and put all of their watermelon rinds in [the bin], which added up.”
Kosoff actually weighed this discarded food and announced to campers how much they had diverted from a landfill. The kids were excited about the project — almost too excited.
“Once we introduced it to the camp, they wanted to compost everything,” Kosoff said. “The campers would come up to me with bowls of banana peels and apple cores, and they were looking for a place to put it. They were really into it.”
Kosoff also used the garden to talk to the kids about hunger. This summer, campers visited Food Share and did a program connecting social justice and Judaism and food, Kosoff said.
“We went over the Jewish law that says that you must leave the corners of your fields so that people who don’t have as much can have access to produce. So we had a discussion, like, what is a corner of a field? And we had them walk around the garden silently and consider what they thought our corner was. Does it mean one bed? Does it mean a third of the garden?”
Kosoff also told them about the law stating that Jews should give 10 percent of their income to charity. The campers were moved by the overall spirit of the discussion, and decided they wanted to be generous, she said.
“On that day, they decided … they wanted to swap those numbers. They wanted us to harvest as much as we could harvest, and they wanted us to save 10 percent for ourselves,” Kosoff said. “So we brought this big bowl of produce to Food Share, which was so cool and so empowering for the campers to decide.”