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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 Jennifer Gioia, CCSA Communications Manager, and Colleen Burns, CCSA Summer 2019 Communications Intern, UNC-Chapel Hill

Lynette Mitchell has been the director and owner of Harvest Learning Center in Chapel Hill, NC for 15 years. She is in her first year as a Shape NC site. In the video above, Lynette talks about how she’s involved the parents of her center with Shape NC.

Shape NC is a program implemented by CCSA in partnership with Smart Start that aims to increase the number of children starting kindergarten at a healthy weight. The program promotes healthy eating and active play for children from birth-5 years old by working with child care programs to instill healthy behaviors early on, creating a solid foundation for a healthy life.

CCSA’s Communications Manager, Jennifer Gioia, sat down with Lynette to find out how her experience has been with Shape NC thus far.

Jennifer:  How did your center hear about Shape NC?

Lynette:  Swanda [Shape NC Technical Assistant] called me into the office one day and said, ‘Listen, we have a great program that we think your center might enjoy and qualify for.’ Once she described how it worked, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, most definitely sign us up. We want to be a part of that.’ We feel like we can grow and become a better center through this program.

Jennifer:  So, it was personal face-to-face outreach?

Lynette:  Definitely. I didn’t know about the other sites. Now that I’ve been in the program, I look for them. I actually was Googling the other day and saw there were several Shape NC programs across the state that have been highlighted in their local newspapers. At first, I thought Shape NC was great just on the criteria alone, but now I see it’s truly a significant program and the community recognizes it statewide for what it provides.

Jennifer:  What resources has Shape NC provided your center so far?

Lynette:  Oh, so much. First of all, just the educational workshops alone have been invigorating and exciting. I’ve even taken my staff to a couple of the workshops, and that’s just been invaluable. You know you can give someone a fish to eat for a day, but you teach them how to fish and it’s for life. By giving us that knowledge, we can go on and do a lot of things beyond that. Then you start getting into the balls and hoops and recipes that they send out. I’m in the first year, but I’ve already gotten so much.

And I haven’t even gotten to the playground yet. My husband and I went to NC State where we sat down directly with the experts to design the playground. They’re at our disposal, and have come up with things I would only dream about. You think you could open up Home and Garden magazine and see these designs in there. Like we can do that here? That was just mind blowing. Then Shape NC put us on a bus to Asheboro where we saw a center that’s doing exactly what I am at my center.

Jennifer:  Why did your center want to become a Shape NC site?

Lynette:  Let’s just put it out there, it’s expensive, and I’m a small business owner. So, when Shape NC told me if I’m willing to make these positive changes in my center, they’ll contribute significantly to enhancing my playground space, it was just very attractive. We have a beautiful natural environment at our center with big trees and shade. When I saw some of the designs that NC State could do for us with Shape NC, it fit perfectly into our philosophy and topography. It was a win-win.

…It was about creating beautiful, relaxing spaces that not only enhance you physically, but mentally and spiritually. And we’re a Christian-based center, so when I saw some of the spaces where people can go and be quiet and calm down, but also other places to go and run around, it’s about all of that when you go outside.

Jennifer:  What is the importance of kids consistently getting that nutritional value from child care centers?

Lynette:  Most of my clientele is middle to upper-middle [income], and a lot of times you think food programs are only for the less fortunate. But I will tell you that these families, who are working moms and dads running here and there, have the resources but just not the time to provide the types of meals that they would like to. What we want to do here is give parents peace of mind that their child’s breakfast, lunch and snack are very nutritious. They may do fast food for dinner, but that’s okay because they had salmon, wild rice, broccoli and quinoa at school today. I think that’s significant because we’re providing them food for the greater portion of the day.

Jennifer:  What impact have you seen Shape NC have on your teachers, the children and on the children’s parents?

Lynette:  I just can’t say enough. I mean I feel so fortunate. Not many centers get picked each year. Just the commitment of this entire team, Swanda and her group cannot be more helpful. Another great thing is the networking. I love being in contact with other sites that have already done it. They have been so helpful and so inspiring. I mean, I forgot which center we went to, but the director kept asking, ‘Is there anything else we can tell you?’ My phone is full of photos, and then one site, I went beyond asking about the playground because I liked the classroom, too.

I love the way the Asheboro center wanted to help. She just kept it real director to director, because when you put all these beautiful things on the playground, you need to know how to maintain them. She told me, ‘I can tell when I get a new teacher who does not understand how we play. She’ll be the first one to toss something over a fence and say the children didn’t know how to play with it.’ She told me you have to continue the education of the staff, so the children know how to enjoy the space.

You can plant all these wonderful herbs, and children will romp through them and rip them apart, not understanding that this is part of the environment and you care for it. This is how we work and play in it for it to be a beautiful place for us. So, I was really glad for that good note of how to maintain from another director.

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


*Answers have been shortened for length and clarity.

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.

Written by Kayli Watson, Spring 2019 Communications Intern from UNC Chapel Hill

(From left to right) Chenille Coston, teacher at Little Engine Academy, and Kathy Smith, owner of Little Engine Academy, hold up their outdoor learning environment blueprints from Shape NC.

Health experts have always stressed eating healthy and being active. Instilling these values at an early age can be the first steps for a longer, healthier life for children. Children enrolled in child care may consume between 50 percent and 100 percent of their Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) while in care. Child care programs have a chance to provide the foundation for a healthy life, in terms of food consumption and levels of activity. Child Care Services Association (CCSA) has worked to create programs to help early care centers in multiple ways, including healthy eating and active play.

Shape NC

CCSA implemented Shape NC to increase the number of children starting kindergarten at a healthy weight. The project promotes healthy eating and active play for children from birth-5 years old by working with child care programs to instill healthy behaviors and create a solid foundation for a healthy life. Shape NC integrates multiple research-based models to provide an in-depth approach to childhood obesity prevention. It combines evidence-based programs to create a comprehensive approach in partnership with the following statewide programs: Be Active Kids®, Preventing Obesity by Design and the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self Assessment for Child Care (Go NAP SACC).

Little Engine Academy in Durham, N.C.

Like other centers, Little Engine Academy benefits from several of CCSA’s programs, including Shape NC. Kathy Smith, the center’s owner, shared how she became involved in early childhood education and created Little Engine Academy. “It was something I always wanted to do,” Smith said, “The previous owners contacted me to say that they were closing and to see if I was interested, and I jumped on the bandwagon thinking it would probably take a month to open. It actually took about three months.” While Kathy has been managing Little Engine Academy since November 2008, the center  has only been involved in Shape NC for a year.

Little Engine Academy is also working to add more healthy meals to their menus through various programs. “We like to talk to the kids about what they eat, explain where the food came from and why they should be eating it,” Smith said.

Outdoor Learning Environment

For Smith and the children at Little Engine Academy, one of the most exciting aspects of Shape NC is re-building their outdoor learning environment. “We’re part of the natural learning initiative,” Smith explained, “We’re super excited! That’s one of the things about being part of Shape NC [that is exciting as it] is helping us get to have what is called an outdoor learning environment versus a playground.”

The outdoor area is a space for children to strengthen their cognitive, social and emotional development through playing games with other kids in an environment in which they can explore and learn. Additionally, outdoor play helps kids’ physical fitness as well as sensory skills. Little Engine Academy is excited to create an area for their kids to not only learn and explore but garden and learn exactly how food is grown. Now in its second year, Shape NC will help create these spaces for child care centers through funding and fundraising opportunities in its third year.

CCSA’s Other Resources for Little Engine Academy

Shape NC is not the only resource Little Engine Academy has used from CCSA. Chenille Coston, a teacher at Little Engine Academy, is also participating in a T.E.A.C.H. NC Early Childhood Scholarship as she works to obtain her master’s degree. There also employees who have received wage supplements from the Child Care WAGE$®️ Program. Both Coston and Smith talk about the value of professional development opportunities  they have attended. “For me, it’s been really awesome. It’s always good to learn more and they provide a lot of new information for us,” Smith said, “We’ve actually incorporated a lot of things they’ve given us.”

“The trainings [have] provided new strategies that we’ve been able to use in the classroom,” Coston said as she explained a recent strategy they have incorporated to teach the kids movement. The center also participates in CCSA child care scholarships that make attending Little Engine Academy more affordable for parents.

The Future at Little Engine Academy with Shape NC

Parents will continue to be more involved with Little Engine Academy as the school gets closer to its third year of participating in Shape NC. Little Engine Academy is looking for volunteers to help remove playground equipment to make room for the new outdoor learning environment, which they will start fundraising for this summer.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Little Engine Academy to remove their playground equipment contact Jennifer Gioia at 919-967-3272.

CCSA is hosting Shape NC activities this Earth Day Festival Sunday, April 28 from 12 – 5 p.m. at the Durham City Earth Day Festival. Stop by Durham Central Park, 501 Foster St. to enjoy all day performances and tons of fun activities. Learn more here.

Learn more about Shape NC here or call us at 919-967-3272 for more information about the program.

To support the Shape NC project, click here and DONATE NOW! Your gift to fund Shape NC workshops and events in Durham, N.C. will be matched 100% through a Social Innovation Fund Grant.