Editor’s Note: Partner Spotlight is a monthly series highlighting the organizations/companies that work with PHA to make healthy choices easier. Find other installments here.
Darsetta Wood knows how kids feel about things they make themselves: Proud. Proud enough to eat them. Even if those things are … vegetables.
Wood, a cook at KinderCare Learning Center in Blue Springs, MO, lets the children there help pick the seeds for the fruits and vegetables she grows in the center’s garden. They also help tend the garden. And harvest the green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe and other bounty the garden produces. Then she cooks it. And they eat it.
All of it. “If they grow it, they feel like they made it, and they are more likely to want to try it. Once I get them to try it, we’re on board. I’ve never had any problems getting my little friends to try something new and enjoy it,” she said.
Not every KinderCare Education center or site (KinderCare’s parent company also operates more than 470 school-based programs) has its own garden, of course. But all of the company’s centers now serve a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and much healthier menus overall. In 2014, the company partnered with PHA, promising to serve healthier meals to all 160,000 of the children under its care.
However, implementing that commitment across all 1,900 of its centers and sites initially had its challenges. While the company was committed to serving healthier food, it had never actually developed an official corporate policy on nutrition, or a process for field-testing meals to ensure that kids would eat them.
“One of the challenges we tackled this past year, encouraged through our joining with PHA, was defining as a company what we believed about nutrition,” said Courtney Hines, KinderCare Education’s registered dietitian. That led to numerous conversations at the corporate level and ultimately, a mission statement and nutritional goals, along with a field testing process for gathering feedback from kids, parents, and center cooks on new products and menu changes.
One thing they learned immediately was that kids hated their pizza, she said. “Pizza is usually a kid favorite,” she added, “so we felt like we really had to knock that one out of the park.”
In what’s considered one of their biggest successes, not only did they get their vendor to make a more nutritious pizza product – removing trans-fat and replacing the old crust with one that was whole grain – the new pizza was also tastier and cheaper to make. It passed the field test with flying colors. “They just love the new pizza!” Hines said.
Jodi Kuhn, Director of KinderCare Education’s Food Program, said the pizza victory was even greater because that vendor now offers a more nutritious product to all of its clients. “That means even more children are getting a healthier meal because of this partnership,” she said.
Kuhn’s hoping they’ll have similar success working with Dannon, a food manufacturer PHA has connected them with that are likewise reformulating its products to be more nutritious for kids.
What’s more, the centers are helping to educate parents on the nutrition changes – even ones that haven’t been as popular, such as completely removing fruit juice from the menu. “The perception is that juice is good. It’s not,” she said. “Some people thought we were just cutting costs by removing it. We had to educate the parents and even some of the teachers who go home and serve it to their own children. Just removing that one thing, that really helped us start changing a lot of perceptions about nutrition.”
Up next? Finding a replacement for chicken fingers, pulled from the menu because they were fried. “We had to get the unhealthy stuff out first,” said Kuhn. “Now we can get more creative.”
Learn more about KinderCare’s Food Program & Nutrition.