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The children of Estes Children’s Cottage serve themselves sliced cucumbers family-style.

Written by guest bloggers Michelle and Cathy Tuttle, owners of Estes Children’s Cottage in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Our mealtimes are a part of our curriculum at Estes Children’s Cottage, and we enjoy sharing food experiences together. Our program philosophy is inspired by the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, and we draw inspiration from their view on food and eating together. 

According to the Reggio Children book, The Languages of Food: Recipes, Experiences, Thoughts, “special care in offering tastes, in the food and attractive composition of the dish, in the aesthetics of table setting, the pleasure of sharing lunch with friends, and the opportunity to encounter the kitchen as a multisensory laboratory are important strategies for creating a welcoming atmosphere for all and highlighting the individual in the group.” 

One of the centerpieces created by the children of Estes Children’s Cottage.

They view the kitchen in each school as “a place of life and of possible relationships, a vital space inhabited on a daily basis by adults and children, a space for thinking and research and learning.”

During the past year, we have explored expanding the children’s involvement with our mealtimes by adding a new ritual of allowing the daily table-setter to design a unique centerpiece for lunchtime. The children now gather items and request that they are used as a centerpiece.

Based on the children’s interest, we’ve created opportunities for helping that include bringing breakfast from the kitchen, putting away clean dishes in the morning and removing dishes from the table after lunch. The older children developed a growing interest in talking about our menu, the food offered and the kitchen where our food is prepared.

The parents and children of Estes Children’s Cottage watch Robert show how to cut butternut squash.

Since we often reference Robert when talking about how some of the dishes we have are prepared, the children wanted to know more about Robert, the manager and chef at the Chapel Hill kitchen for Child Care Services Association’s Meal Services Program. They had many questions for him, including what he looked like and his favorite foods to prepare and eat. We gathered the children’s questions and mailed a letter to Robert. He sent back his responses, complete with a picture attached. 

We wanted to nurture the children’s interest in the kitchen and grow the relationship. Our oldest group of children was then able to travel by town bus on a field trip to see the kitchen in action. We were accompanied by a couple of the children’s parents as well.

Robert showing the children of Estes Children’s Cottage the equipment in CCSA’s Meal Services’ Chapel Hill kitchen.

They observed the food preparation process, saw some of the tools used in the kitchen and even taste-tested a new recipe the kitchen staff had prepared for the occasion. They now have a visual of the kitchen, the staff and a lot of what goes into making our meals, as well as meeting and forming relationships with the kitchen and staff.

After the bus ride back to the Cottage they were able to share “insider information” with the other children about what they had observed and seen. 

Written by Colleen Burns, Summer 2019 Communications Intern from UNC Chapel Hill

Rachel Feuer and her children

Rachel Feuer is a mother of two with her younger son, Sam, in child care in Chapel Hill. As any mother of a four-year-old would, Rachel expects her son to talk about the toys he played with or the new friends he made that day at his child care center. But one of his comments stands out among the rest.

Sam raves about the food served at his child care center. “My son has asked me many times to make Robert’s soup or Robert’s salad dressing or Robert’s chicken or Robert’s greens,” Rachel says. “He has asked me many times why we can’t just have Robert’s food at home, and was disappointed to find out that we can’t just order it. Recently, he has started asking for Robert’s recipes daily, and wondering why Robert doesn’t have a cookbook.”

Robert isn’t a cook at Sam’s child care center, though. Robert Cates has been a manager of the Meal Services program at Child Care Services Association (CCSA) for 20 years. He manages the kitchen in Orange County at the University United Methodist Church in downtown Chapel Hill and generates menus for all three of CCSA’s Meal Services kitchens. He also works closely with CCSA’s Meal Services program senior manager, Lisa Menna, who manages all three kitchens, to ensure meals meet the nutritional needs of the children by collaborating with dietitians and nutritionists as well as sourcing meat, produce and other products from local farmers.

What is the CCSA Meal Services?

In operation for almost 30 years, CCSA’s Meal Services program began out of the kitchen at the University United Methodist Church in Orange County. It expanded with the construction of the Jim and Carolyn Hunt Child Care Resource Center in Durham County, and in 2017-18’s fiscal year, the program served 1,300 children daily in 24 centers.

The Meal Services program provides two nutritious meals plus one nutritious snack per day to children enrolled in participating child care centers in Durham, Orange and Wake County. These scratch-made meals meet or exceed all USDA requirements for child care and are compliant with the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). CCSA serves as a food sponsor for CACFP,  a federal program that sets standards for nutritious meals for children ages birth-12 years, and subsidizes the cost of food for child care programs, targeting children whose families qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Rachel says, “CCSA makes it possible for smaller child care settings to provide excellent food for kids and teachers. At the small [child care center] my son attends, there is no space or budget to hire someone to cook meals.” This is the case for many child care centers.

By purchasing food in bulk, the Meal Services program allows child care centers to purchase nutritional meals and snacks at cost, without having to maintain expensive kitchens. It also allows directors to focus more of their attention on quality child care instead of on shopping, menu planning and cooking.

“It’s also an educational process,” says Robert. Trying new foods can be an adjustment for some children, “but the child care centers we’ve been serving for a long time…know how to ease kids into it and help them to appreciate the variety and appreciate things that they’ve never seen before,” Robert explained.

In order to be eligible for Meal Services, child care centers must have at least 3 stars or earn at least a 3-star rating within one year of implementing Meal Services, and participating centers are also required to enroll in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program. Meals also must be served family style at the table as meals are not individually packaged, so that children can eat together in a positive setting.

Why is the CCSA Meal Services Needed?

Many families in North Carolina face the dual challenge of food insecurity and early childhood obesity. Child care centers play a central role in the development of early eating habits. On average, children receive more than 50 percent of their daily caloric intake at child care. Therefore, the importance of these meals cannot be understated. Nutrition and quality must be prioritized.

Rachel is a psychologist who has worked with many clients who have struggled with healthy eating. “Early childhood is the time when children are developing lifelong eating habits. If they become accustomed to eating lots of preparations of healthy vegetables, proteins, legumes and whole grains, they will be at an advantage for their entire life,” says Rachel.

Meal Services focuses on creating meals that are made using local products and in-season fruits and vegetables.

Robert says, “We buy from Farmer Foodshare, which is a local food hub in Durham, and they source from all over North Carolina. They get apples from the mountains and produce from down east. And then we also source…from farmers in Orange, Durham and Chatham counties.”

The program ensures children have balanced menus that include one poultry, one beef, one seafood and two vegetarian lunches per week.

“We have so many items on our [menu] list…There is quite a bit of variety and it always depends on…what’s available seasonally…We follow the meal patterns of the child care center food programs, and we also meet with nutritionists to make sure we are going above and beyond in terms of the nutritional needs for the children,” Robert shared.

Monthly newsletters let families learn more about what their child is eating and learning about in the child care setting. They even include tips and recipes so that parents like Rachel can try to incorporate these healthy foods at home. Rachel says, “CCSA strikes a healthy balance of wholesome food that (according to my kids) tastes excellent.”

Robert shared, “We’re looking to hopefully expand what we’re doing into Chatham County. There are groups working around the state to replicate our model in rural areas around North Carolina. So, it’s a slow process, but people think what we’re doing is worth trying to duplicate in other areas.”

To continue supporting the operations of Child Care Services Association and crucial programs such as Meal Services, please consider donating today.