Kiddie Keep Well Camp is a nonprofit that provides a residential camp experience for children and senior citizens of Middlesex County, NJ. With the help of the New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund (NJCNF) and the Reinvestment Fund, they’ve been working on revamping their menu and updating their kitchen and dining hall.
Cindy Robertson, the Executive Director of the Kiddie Keep Well Camp, has been working with the organization for the past 15 years. “Since 1924, Kiddie Keep Well Camp (KKWC) has cared for some of the most underserved people in Middlesex County,” Robertson says. She adds, though, that the segment of the population they serve has changed with time. “[We started] out with children who were malnourished, health-impaired, and struggling, [and serving] senior citizens, and the year-round program started in 1984.” Now, KKWC offers entirely free programming to both children and senior citizens in Middlesex County, including free health and dental services when needed.
According to Roberton, KKWC was inspired by local health and human resource professionals who wanted to give children the opportunity to breathe in fresh air, and an environment where “they can just be kids for a few days throughout the summer.” They wanted to deliver this experience to families who didn’t have the means to pay for it themselves.
Most summer camps aren’t affordable for working-class families. “Many families’ only option is to leave their children at home with other siblings to care for each other,” Robertson says. “I think what Kiddie Keep Well Camp has managed to pull together for camp will keep kids engaged, healthy, happy, and safe, while still allowing parents and guardians to be worry-free for a few weeks. We help alleviate that financial and logistical nightmare of what to do after school is finished for the summer.”
A big part of that experience, in addition to traditional camp programming and educational instruction, is access to healthy and nutritious foods. “KKWC places a strong emphasis on health and wellness, developing a holistic approach to serve the unmet/underserved needs of families living in Middlesex County,” Roberton says.
Federal nutrition programs have helped the camp subsidize the costs of feeding the children and seniors healthy meals. “Over the past 15 years, we have structured the [food] program to be more aligned with our mission. We removed fried foods, changed desserts to fresh fruit 99% of the time, and provide salads at every meal. This made a huge impact and we have very little waste,” Robertson explains.
Now, KKWC is working on updating their menus and Robertson anticipates that the campers will respond very positively to the new changes. “Many who have been coming over the years will appreciate the change and effort,” she explains. KKWC has also put more time and energy into creating programs on healthy eating, portion control, and nutritional balance. Robertson says that these updates are “simple things that can produce lifelong changes.”
As Robertson puts it, “The federal nutrition program is a huge asset to struggling families that are ensnared in a complex, crippling web of poverty.” She believes that the paperwork and documentation, though sometimes overwhelming, are “totally worth it” in the end. KKWC is also able to collaborate with other nonprofits or organizations that can take their impact to the next level. “We use a lot of community resources to help supplement our food, such as a New Jersey food bank, a farmer’s market, and a newly recommended Common Market which has fabulous fresh produce year-round,” Robertson adds.
On top of advancements made possible by the NJCNF, KKWC was also awarded a capital grant from Reinvestment Fund. They’re now updating their kitchen and dining hall, and investing in menu planning for next summer. Robertson explains, “Our equipment is rather old…and I think it is much too small for the number of people we serve, which is close to 225-250.” With the grant, they can replace this equipment with newer, larger versions. “When things work properly, it allows staff to work efficiently, and I believe a better quality of food can be served,” she says.
The incredible impact of KKWC, made possible in part by the NJCNF grant, is clearly seen among the families who participate. “Our families have been very emotional about the meals prepared or provided, especially during the holiday time,” Robertson says. “It’s tough to live in New Jersey and work hard and not be able to provide healthy food for your family.”
Though access to healthy food will hopefully be easier in the future, Robertson believes that there will always be a need for places like KKWC. “Just like [in] life, there are ups and downs—economy booms, economy struggles. We need to continue to be kind and help our fellow human beings in need,” she says. “I would like to see our families not live hand-to-mouth, make more than minimum wage, and only have one job so they can spend time with their families.” She adds, “We need to do what we can to make it better for them.”
ABOUT NJ CHILD NUTRITION FUND (NJCNF)
The New Jersey Child Nutrition Fund is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. NJCNF aims to increase the number of low-income children receiving meals through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Additionally, NJCNF seeks to facilitate the use of fresh, local and ethnically appropriate food whenever possible.