Dream food at Dream Camp

Jeff Benjamin (front) with (from left) Osteria owner Marc Vetri, Dream Camp co-founder Michael Rouse and Osteria executive chef Jeff Michaud.

Who says inexpensive summer-camp food has to be highly processed - you know, canned beef-and macaroni, frozen corn and mystery-meat on a bleached-out bun?

The kids at Dream Camp are chowing down on meals that adhere to the federal school-lunch budget of $2.60 per child - and they're eating like kings, thanks to local chef extraordinaire Marc Vetri and business partner Jeff Benjamin.

Here's my write-up about it via today's Daily News:

MICHAEL ROUSE had a problem.

He runs a program called Dream Camp, held at Girard College, that allows poor kids to revel, for free, in high-quality day-camp fun that kids from wealthier homes often take for granted.

Over a five-week period, the 265 campers learn violin, stretch their limbs in yoga class, glide through ballroom-dance lessons, become chess strategists and burn off energy in every activity you can do on two legs.

Where the dream experience had become a nightmare, Rouse says, was in the cafeteria.

The low-income campers are entitled to free lunch, but the food provided through the government subsidy of $2.60 per child is often fried, canned and processed beyond recognition.

Rouse was convinced that the fat-and-sugar-laden meals - unappetizingly dumped onto plates in the cafeteria food line - was contributing to a twofold problem he saw among returning campers each year:

They were becoming overweight, and the additives in their lunch caused them to misbehave after the meal in ways they never did before they'd eaten.

"The food was the 'un-dream-like' thing about camp," says Rouse, who co-owns for-profit ESF Summer Camps, which he founded with his brother, Bill, in 1982. "We had to do better."

He'd become enamored with the work of Alice Waters, the California restaurateur whose "Edible Schoolyard" movement champions the benefits of urban students growing produce in a school garden as a way to develop a palate and appreciation for fresh, locally produced food.

"A lot of city kids don't even know what fresh food tastes like," Rouse says, noting that fresh is often more expensive to provide than processed food. "That's just wrong."

With the blessing of Girard president Autumn Adkins- Graves, he approached chef extraordinaire Marc Vetri and his business partner, Jeff Benjamin, whose restaurants - Vetri, Osteria and Amis - are on national food reviewers' four-star lists.

What's less known about the duo is that they've recently founded the Vetri Foundation for Children, which supports kids' causes. So Rouse asked if they'd design a Dream Camp lunch menu, based on that $2.60-per-child budget, that was both nutritious and delicious.

Vetri's reply: "We won't just design it. We'll cook it ourselves."

His staff then collaborated with Flik, Girard's school-dining vendor, and with reps from the state's summer food-service program to serve healthy meals that adhere to federal nutritional guidelines.

And that's how the campers at Girard College have come to be eating lunches that now include panko-crusted chicken tenders, roasted chicken with mushroom risotto, baked ziti with chick-pea and cucumber salad, baked lasagna with apple-carrot salad and other tasty creations that give orange mac-n-cheese the heave-ho.

Better still, the food is not spooned onto plates by the cafeteria staff but shared family-style at each table of eight, where civilized behavior and stimulating conversation is encouraged and rewarded.

"The meal becomes an entirely different experience for these kids," says Benjamin. "So many of them never sit down with their families, around a table, and discuss their lives. This is a whole different way of eating."

For the poorest of the kids, it's also the only meal of the day they can count on receiving.

Before the meal begins, the chef - a Vetri/Benjamin employee who works with the Flik staff - explains to campers what they're about to eat, how it was prepared and why it's healthy.

Kids get "points" for each new food they try - one child had never eaten fresh fruit - and for finishing their portions.

"We weren't sure how it was going to work out," says Rouse. "These are foods the kids had never tasted before. We thought it might take a few weeks for them to get on board. But by the second day, they were hooked."

Better still, Rouse says, there has been an unmistakable change in the children's post-lunch behavior.

Last year, "It wasn't unusual for a dozen kids to act up after lunch, and we'd have to get them calmed down," says Rouse. "This year, there are maybe two kids per day who need to be redirected. I think it's because they're eating healthy food."

Watching closely is Adkins-Graves. Now entering her second year as president of Girard, she's focused on improving the health and fitness levels of students and sees Rouse's lunch experiment as a dry run for how Girard meals might be handled.

"I believe strongly in the power of the table and what happens there," she says. "How we eat together can change the dynamics of our relationships. Instead of using a cafeteria line, which is institutional, sharing bowls and passing plates is more intimate."

And the dignity of knowing that it was prepared by people who know what to do at the stove? Well, that's a treat indeed. Just ask fans of Vetri and Benjamin - who wait hours for a seat at any one of the duo's culinary meccas. Where the meals are a dream.