SOUTH PORTLAND — MaineLy Childcare isn’t exactly nestled in fields, surrounded by farms. The spacious child care facility, located in a gray-and-white industrial-looking building with two large, fenced-in play areas outside, is just off Interstate 295 and overlooks a cemetery and South Portland’s oil tanks.

But every morning at 5:15 or so, head director Gina Kostopoulos preps farm-fresh vegetables from Native Maine Produce and organically raised local meats for 43 children’s breakfast, lunch and snacks. Even the littlest ones get steamed, pureed vegetables rather than jarred baby food.

Kostopoulos is one of a growing number of day care providers who are paying as much attention to the food they feed their little charges as they do the toys in the classrooms. Instead of frozen, processed chicken fingers, Kostopoulos makes her own, dipping chunks of antibiotic-free chicken in egg, Parmesan and a little garlic before rolling them in homemade bread crumbs and baking them. Accompanying the chicken fingers, instead of the usual french fries, are red garlic smashed potatoes finished with a touch of butter.

A snack might be hummus with vegetables and pita, a yogurt and granola parfait, or “breakfast cookies” made with zucchini, chocolate chips and oatmeal, with a little quinoa or chia seed thrown in for good measure.

Across the bridge in Portland, Youth & Family Outreach, which feeds 50-57 children every day, hired Dylan Roberts, a full-time chef, two years ago. Roberts makes everything from scratch, including peanut butter, and he “hides” vegetables in ordinary dishes, such as tomato soup and mac-and-cheese dotted with butternut squash and carrots.

Gina Kostopoulos, owner of MaineLy Childcare in South Portland, arranges food on a hand cart while the facility’s director, Annie Marshall, right, slices fresh fruit. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“Children’s brains are developing at rapid fire from 0 to (age) 5, and nutrition plays a big part in how those synapses are firing,” notes Camelia Babson-Haley, program director at the center. “It plays a big part in cognitive development as well as all other development. We wanted to start developing healthy palates, and to do that we really needed to start when they’re babies.”

The Catherine Morrill Day Nursery in Portland also has its own cook and purchases much of its food from Native Maine Produce. Children at the nursery eat “Ancient Grain Hot Cereal” and whole wheat pancakes with applesauce for breakfast. Marisa Bebris, owner of Ready, Set, Go! Learning Center in Freeport, shops at the Brunswick farmers market and uses local eggs. And the 15 Head Start and Early Head Start programs in Oxford and Franklin counties started serving more local foods last year.

WHERE HEALTHY HAPPENS

National experts say the quality of food served at America’s child care centers is a mixed bag, depending on whether a facility is large or small, urban or rural, or a part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, a USDA program that provides federal subsidies, training and support for more than 115,000 family child care providers. At the other end of the spectrum, corporate-owned day cares are often able to leverage their buying power and serve better-quality food, says Krista Scott of ChildCare Aware of America, a nonprofit group that advocates for policies to make child care accessible and affordable.

The federal subsidy program provides reimbursement for meals and nutrition education programs to child care centers where at least 25 percent of the enrolled children come from low-income families. Food served in such centers must follow federal nutrition guidelines that, for example, don’t allow sugary drinks like Kool-Aid. Those guidelines, which had not been revised for decades, were recently overhauled to reflect new research and new food products. The new guidelines, scheduled to go into effect later this year, don’t allow strawberry or chocolate milk, but they do finally recognize meat alternatives like tofu.

In programs that receive the subsidies, or in programs in wealthier neighborhoods, “the quality of the food is good to high,” said Julie Shuell, project director at Nemours National Office of Policy and Prevention, a nonprofit children’s health organization. But those are exceptions, she said.

“The norm is that most child care programs are serving low-quality food, and part of that is because child care is a low-margin business,” Shuell said. “It doesn’t make a lot of money. So providers are having to provide the food on a budget, and they buy what they can in bulk. My favorite example is fish sticks, or those boxes of deep-fried chicken nuggets.”

Some day cares allow parents to send food from home, but those parents are often on a tight budget, too, Shuell said, and tend to choose foods that are shelf stable and things they know their children will eat – including sugar-filled yogurts, snack cakes and pre-made snack boxes “and those things are super high in sugar and sodium and calories.”

Kostopoulos saw that firsthand before she started providing lunch to her charges herself.

A serving of harvest rice salad and fresh-cut fruit at MaineLy Childcare. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

“When parents brought things in, they’d bring things like gummies or granola bars that are packed full of sugar,” Kostopoulos said. “Even the organic gummy bears they’d send would have chemical food dyes and not natural food dye, and a lot of the food dyes do affect the way they’re behaving. It makes them more hyper, and they don’t have a nice balance in their little bodies.”

TASTE TESTS FOR TOTS

But as more research comes out about the connection between nutrition and early childhood development, menus are changing. Parents are demanding better-quality food for their children, says Shuell, whose organization urges parents to talk to their child care providers about even small, inexpensive changes, such as switching from high-fat to lower-fat milk.

“Parents are getting much more involved in advocating,” she said, “and I think it’s because they are more conscious of their own eating and their own nutrition.”

At Catherine Morrill, founded in 1916 by a group of women fighting for better nutrition for babies, parents aren’t allowed to even send cupcakes for their child’s birthday. The center provides yogurt dips with fruit and vegetables, and other alternatives. On their lunch trays, instead of orange juice, the kids get sections of actual oranges. The pasta is gluten-free – every kid gets it so the ones who are sensitive to gluten don’t feel singled out.

The center, which feeds 75 children and 20 teachers every day, also works nutrition into its curriculum. Children and teachers eat family style and talk about the food on the table – what color is it? Is the texture smooth or crunchy?

“Often children will try foods they might not at home because other children are trying them,” said Lori Moses, executive director.

Catherine Morrill also holds a lot of taste tests, letting the kids compare apple varieties, sweet and sour foods, and so on, so they learn about the language of food.

Although Catherine Morrill is part of the Child and Adult Care Food Program, the subsidies don’t cover the entire cost of their food and nutrition program. Moses estimates the food budget has gone up $2,000-$5,000 a year ever since it started upgrading its food program.

“We lose money on the food program, there’s no question,” she said. “But we feel it’s an important part of our program, and so do the families. And for children who might be dealing with food insecurity, this might be their main meal.”

Servings of harvest rice salad and fresh-cut fruit are arranged on a hand cart, ready to roll to the classrooms at MaineLy Childcare. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Improvements in food don’t always translate into higher costs, however. At the Youth and Family Outreach Program, also a part of the federal subsidy program, food costs initially went up, Babson-Haley said. But after the program hired Roberts, costs went down 7 percent.

“There’s a big myth out there that eating healthy costs more,” Babson-Haley said, “and it can be the opposite, actually.”

One strategy employed by her center: They serve meat only once a week; when they do, it is local and free range – what they have come to call “happy meat.” Serving less meat helps keep costs down, leaving Roberts free to make blueberry scones, pierogies, risotto – even cassoulet, “a lot of stuff I make would fit in fine at any restaurant around here,” he said.

Scott agreed that food costs can actually go down. “Overall, there is research out there and really good evidence to show that it can be possible to make these changes and be cost neutral or even save money,” she said. “But providers need that support.”

By support, she means training, and either a chef in the kitchen who knows how to control food costs or plenty of storage space.

At Youth and Family Outreach, the next step is pursuing a grant to renovate its tiny kitchen, and hopefully add more storage.

Meanwhile, another lunch is underway at MaineLy Childcare. Kostopoulos and Annie Marshall, director of the center, push big steel carts down the hallway, stopping at doors where tiny rain boots are lined up outside to deliver plates of turkey and dressing with sides of cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables.

Marshall pauses to chat with a teacher and then calls down the hallway to Kostopoulos: “Hey Gina? Is there dairy in the gravy?”