Tawonga teens follow foods journey from its source

Camp Tawonga has been running summer adventure quests for teens for more than 20 years, but it’s only in the last decade that a different kind of adventure has been offered: service-learning trips, which focus on tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

This summer, older teens will have two very different options for a service-learning adventure. One will take them a long distance, to Israel. The other will take them a relatively short distance, but one no less foreign: California organic farms.

Tawonga, the Jewish summer camp near Yosemite, introduced the Teen Service Learning Food and Farm program last year to harness the Jewish community’s burgeoning interest in reforming the modern food system. “Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of buzz about food and farms in the media and in the Jewish community, so we wanted to have a teen program that addressed that,” said Aaron Mandel, assistant director of teen programs.

Sophia Mahoney-Rohrl (from left), Dan Meade and Charlette Naiman take a break at Pie Ranch in Pescadero.

“Bay Area organizations like Hazon and Urban Adamah are focused on building the Jewish food movement. This really aligns with what we have been doing at Tawonga, where we have an educational garden at the camp and part of our mission is to have kids feel like they are in partnership with nature.”

Over three weeks in June and July, a group of eight teens entering grades 9-11 traveled to several farms in Northern California to work with farmers and learn how food is raised and brought to market. They began at New Family Farm in Sebastopol, run by former Tawonga camper and counselor Adam Davidoff.

Working with livestock, harvesting, and prepping produce for market during the days, the teens camped out on the farm overnight, preparing their own meals and discussing Jewish texts from a food-based curriculum provided by Hazon. “We want the kids to understand that farming and having a Jewish land ethic connects to our tradition that’s thousands of years old,” said Mandel.

The group also spent time at Pie Ranch in Pescadero and volunteered at several Bay Area urban farms, including City Slickers in Oakland, Hayes Valley Farm in San Francisco and the Jewish environmental education center in Berkeley, Urban Adamah.

“Looking at these urban farms allowed them to see that you don’t need a huge farm. You can literally eat out of your own backyard,” said Mandel. Their final week was spent at the Kowana Valley Farm in Coulterville, which supplies a lot of produce to Camp Tawonga’s kitchen.

“I really enjoyed seeing how successful farms of all kinds can be … and how important it is to get as much food as you can from small, local farms,” said Shoshana Moed, 15, who went on the trip last summer.

After completing their tour, the teens returned to Tawonga to present what they had learned to campers and staff. They also got to meet with the kitchen manager and discuss the future of farm-to-table food at the camp in coming years. “We really want to see them take some of the lessons and values back home with them into their own personal habits about buying and consuming food,” said Mandel.

Dan Meade, 17, is a success story in that respect. Before the trip, “I knew almost nothing about agriculture and where food comes from,” he said, “and I had never even thought of where Tawonga’s food came from.” Meade attributes his new appetite for fruits and vegetables to the food and farm program, and said it made him want to buy local produce and go to farmers markets as often as possible.

Before choosing the participants, Mandel reviews the applications carefully and speaks with each teen to make sure he or she is fully prepared. “Service-learning trips are not a passive experience that you just receive. You have to throw yourself into it and engage,” he said.

“I talked to each of them before the trip to see that they have a genuine interest in the subject matter and know that they are coming on a trip that will involve a lot of work on the farms. There’s also a serious arc of learning, done through doing.”

Two staff members accompanied the teens in their travels last summer, engaging them in learning opportunities whenever possible — including on the shoulder of Highway 101.

Shoshana recalls that impromptu lesson, which took place while driving near Watsonville. Everyone was instructed to get out of the vans so the teens could observe and better understand working conditions on the farm.

“We passed one of Dole’s huge farms, and there were so many farmworkers out there picking strawberry after strawberry after strawberry,” she said. “So much work goes into each little fruit or vegetable that is grown.”

While last summer’s trip included only small-scale organic farmers — mostly because they are the ones open to accepting teenage volunteers — Mandel is hoping to include a bigger farm or processing plant on the 2012 trip.

But it’s not all farmwork and study. The crew also enjoyed weekend adventures: backpacking through Big Sur and rafting down the American River. “We make sure they get their adventurous bonding experience,” said Mandel, with a laugh.

For information about the program, which runs June 17 to July 6, visit the Camp Tawonga website at www.tawonga.org. Financial assistance is available.