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September 10, 2010 > Lunches today, healthier lives tomorrow

Lunches today, healthier lives tomorrow

By Alyson Whitaker
Photos By courtesy of Kidango

Preparing lunch for a room full of hungry children is no small task. Meeting their varied nutritional needs and dietary restrictions can be challenging, and preparing foods that they'll actually eat and enjoy is even tougher. Now try preparing breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack for more than 2,000 children... every single day! This is the task of the Kidango Nutrition Department, a responsibility they take seriously.

Kidango is a sponsor of the Childcare Food Program-the state equivalent to the National Lunch Program. All children who attend Kidango's 40 centers throughout the Bay Area receive lunch each day. Those in the all-day programs also receive breakfast and an afternoon snack. This totals more than 3,500 breakfasts, lunches, and snacks per day.

All food is prepared in a licensed central kitchen. Five full-time staff members start their day early, preparing the day's lunch and snack, along with breakfast for the following morning. Additional part-time staff members assist with the delivery to the various centers.

All meals are served family style at each center. Teaching and child-care staff sit down with the children in their care for all meals, and food is placed in serving bowls and passed around the table. For some, this is the only opportunity they have to participate in the social aspect of family mealtime. This setting increases interaction with the children as they develop communication skills and independence. Children learn to share mealtime responsibilities as they take part in the set-up and clean-up of each meal.

The increase in childhood obesity in recent years has motivated Kidango to reevaluate their menu, making gradual changes to make meals more nutritious. Whole grains have been introduced, ground turkey has replaced ground beef, more fresh fruits and vegetables are incorporated when possible. Currently, only one fresh fruit is offered per week because of the labor-intensive nature of preparing fresh fruit. The remaining fruits are usually canned, but packed in juice rather than sweetened syrup. Nutrition Services Manager Monica Quintana is constantly researching new suppliers for fresh, prepared produce and other healthy choices to enhance the menu.

Because they serve a diverse ethnic group, Kidango also strives to provide a variety of ethnic foods; teriyaki chicken, Sloppy Joes, minestrone soup, African vegetable bean stew, and southwestern chicken casserole are just a few of the main course dishes rotated through the six-week menu cycle. The Nutrition Department takes feedback seriously, constantly evaluating their menus and introducing new foods. Favorites like the "chicken corndog" and the "Kidango favorite tacos" also make a regular appearance. It takes a child approximately 20 times of tasting a new food to determine a like or a dislike, and children are encouraged to try a little bit of everything at each meal.

An increase in restricted diets over the past few years has also demanded attention. Wheat, egg, nut, and dairy allergies are higher than ever, requiring the nutrition department to evaluate the products and food choices to make sure that the foods are safe and allergen-free for those within the program. Alternatives are offered when available, and parents and staff work closely together to ensure that the food is safe for each child.

Quintana makes a point of sitting down with the children at each of the centers she visits on a quarterly basis. She interacts with them, asks how they like the food, and what items they'd like to see on the menu. She's delighted when she gets a positive response, and when she doesn't, she asks for suggestions, and takes them back to the planning committee for evaluation.

Running a food program like this isn't cheap. Kidango receives reimbursement for some of their costs from the Childcare Food Program, but that falls short of covering their budget. The Annual Taster Showcase fundraiser supports their nutrition program, along with other grants and fundraisers.

It is the Nutrition Department's goal to not just feed the children today, but to provide the foods and environment in which they can develop healthy eating habits for life.

Learn more about Kidango at www.kidango.org.

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