July 13, 2011

Natural Foodie: Kids & kale?

Unlikely, right? Well, as a matter of fact, a Portland daycare center is serving kale – and meals made with local, healthy foods – and cutting out the processed stuff, and the children are gobbling it all up.

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Anyone who believes preschoolers won't eat broccoli or kale, let alone try tempeh or quinoa, needs to take a trip to the Youth & Family Outreach daycare center in Portland.

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Lauchlan Gartland leans back so he doesn't lose even a crumb of his burrito.

Photos by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

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Fresh and local fixings, including grated carrots and shredded greens, are assembled for a rice and bean burrito lunch to be served to the children at the Youth & Family Outreach daycare center in Portland.

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During the past six months, the center has completely revamped its menus, eliminating processed foods in favor of whole and locally grown foods prepared from scratch.

The center serves children from 6 weeks to 5 years old and offers breakfast, lunch and a snack each day.

Five-year-old Nunga Zangada recently tried gazpacho for the first time. "I liked it a lot," she said. "And I ate the fruits and I liked the salad."

She's not the only one enjoying the new foods.

"The feedback from the parents has been, 'I can't believe my child is eating this,' " said assistant director Michelle Greenlaw. "It's inspired them to serve some of these foods at home."

This is no surprise to K Yacks, the center's cook.

"Kids do eat kale," said Yacks, who has a degree in urban agriculture and political economy from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and worked for years as a chef in high-end restaurants in Chicago, New Orleans and Seattle. "We're developing palates for this food."


Sure, you may be thinking, this is all well and good for the children of yuppies and foodies, who regularly dine on sushi and spinach salads. But it's not going to work if the children aren't used to these foods.

The majority of the children at the daycare do not come from privileged backgrounds.

"Seventy-nine percent of our families are low income," said Camelia Babson-Haley, the center's director. "Everybody should be able to eat local, whole, healthy foods."

The appeal of processed foods comes from both their convenience and the fact that foods loaded with trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup are relatively cheap.

But even with weekly trips to the Portland Farmers Market and purchases of organic food from Maine farms and suppliers, Youth & Family Outreach is only averaging $20 more per week in food costs.

"I want to go through a year and see if it really went up," Babson-Haley said of the weekly costs. "Some of the meals are really inexpensive, like rice and beans. And if you're eating in season, you're eating what's cheaper."

The center's food budget is $15,000 per year, which feeds 40 students and eight staff members five days a week.

"Our budget is really tight and getting tighter," Babson-Haley said, noting that both grant money and government reimbursements are shrinking. "For example, it costs $300 a week to take care of an infant, and we get $200 a week from the state."

It costs between $186 and $230 per week, depending on age, to send a child to the daycare center. Low-income families pay between $167 and $200 per week, which is generally covered by the state.

"One of the things that has made it more affordable for us is not eating meat every day," Yacks said.

Meatless meals include dishes such as roasted chickpeas with turmeric potatoes, Costa Rican beans and rice, pesto pasta with black bean tempeh, and enchilada lasagna with local beans, cheese, sauce and spinach.

In addition to being budget conscious, Yacks needs to cater to a variety of special diets.

"We have dairy, egg and nut allergies" among the students, she said. "We also have some kids who don't eat pork, and five vegetarians."

When meat is on the menu, it comes from Hannaford's Nature's Place brand, which doesn't contain antibiotics or growth hormones. Yacks serves it in dishes that include turkey sloppy joes and baked chicken breast with quinoa and steamed broccoli.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Makai Man enjoys lunch with fellow toddlers.

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Kayla Landry, a teacher at the Youth & Family Outreach daycare center in Portland, serves lunch to her young charges.

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Sugar snap peas grow among other vegetables in the raised beds beside the center.

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