Ron Hungate shows off a pan of cheesy rolls in the kitchen at Camp Howard.
Ron Hungate shows off a pan of cheesy rolls in the kitchen at Camp Howard.

CORBETT — Imagine your grade schooler inviting friends over for dinner — 250 of them.

That’s a challenge faced daily at Camp Howard, where staff prepare not only dinner, but breakfast and lunch for hundreds of summer campers, Outdoor School students and even voracious football players in training.

“It takes some doing,” said Karen von Borstel, the camp facilities manager and blood sister of the Catholic Youth Organization/Camp Howard executive director, Sister Krista von Borstel.

The feeding project begins with a dialogue long before campers arrive. Karen von Borstel prepares a menu, usually with input from leaders of the group that’s coming to stay at the wooded 240-acre camp in the Mount Hood foothills. In the summer, when campers come from all over, she devises the menu herself, consulting with camp nurses about food allergies, vegans and vegetarians.

Von Borstel takes the dining preferences and the expected numbers of campers and applies an instinctive mental algorithm to make a shopping list. As long as her arm, the list includes hundreds of pounds of meat, big bags of vegetables, boxes of canned fruit, mounds of fresh fruit, and palettes of milk jugs. She climbs into the camp’s white van and glides down the hill to Cash and Carry, the wholesaler in Gresham. 

During prime summer season, von Borstel makes two trips per week.

“I have that store memorized,” she said. “I could work there.”

The frequent shopping is necessary because camp refrigerators and freezers at this point won’t hold much, a limitation to be lifted once the new lodge is complete in July. That should cut the number of grocery trips in half.

Von Borstel does not purchase bagged salads. She gets whole vegetables and staff chop them up fresh. “We cook from scratch,” she said.

During the summer, Margie Haener Barnett, owner of a local farm, donates corn on the cob and green beans, favorites of campers.

The camp itself has a garden that produces hundreds of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, tomatillos and squash. Von Borstel tends the patch, with help from all the volunteers she can find. The Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, Sister Krista’s community members, send a team each year to weed the rows.

When campers catch rainbow trout in the pond, which they do about 800 times per year, staff clean the fish and cook it for the young anglers.

Paid kitchen staff — three in the morning, three in the afternoon and one swing shift worker —  fire up bacon and flip pancakes. They bake bread and rolls, including wildly popular cheesy buns. Also popular among campers are pulled pork, oven-fried chicken, lasagna, pizza and classic hamburgers and hot dogs, often cooked on the camp’s massive Traeger pellet grill. Most staff have certification in kitchen management.

Having several hundred diners work their way through a buffet line in the dining hall would be frustratingly slow. Instead, each table designates one camper to be a runner, heading to the kitchen to pick up bowls and platters of grub and bringing them back to the table, family style. 

“It is a very fast way to serve a whole bunch of people,” said von Borstel.

The runners can come back for more until the food runs out, which is rare.

Food is served on washable plates and everyone eats with metal forks and spoons. Cups and glasses are of the washable variety. That limits trash and is easier on the environment.

Everyone washes down the meal with plenty of milk, water or Camp Howard Punch, a fruity and refreshing mixture.

Von Borstel says there is a focus on fruits and vegetables and all manner of healthier choices. But the camp also serves up a few treats, like elephant ears fried outside in the giant propane-heated wok.

In case of a power outage, generators kick on to keep the refrigerators and freezers going. One bank of lights also can stay on. The gas ranges and barbecue are called on in such dark situations, which happen occasionally in the woods.

When it’s time for dining hall cleanup, one group of cabin-mates stays behind and carries dirty dishes to the counter. Dishwashers, usually two young staffers who live at camp and get room and board in addition to wages, then get to work sanitizing. Food waste gets put out to compost.

Meanwhile, the on-duty cabin-mates wipe tables with a sanitizing soap mixture and sweep the floor. Staff later mop.

The next morning, it starts again.

“It’s a pretty smooth process,” von Borstel said.