United Way
of Massachusetts Bay
and Merrimack Valley

March 21, 2013

Renaissance Fare

United Way partner Great Bay Kid’s Company has completely overhauled the way they feed their children. The era of star-shaped breaded chicken has come to an end.

As the doors to Great Bay Kids’ Company swing open, the wafting scent of spiced, pan-cooked chicken immediately meets your nostrils. It’s lunch time at the sprawling child care center at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, NH and the children are seated at their tables, patiently waiting to dig into whatever delicacy the cook has conjured.

And delicacy it is; today’s meal of chicken taquitos is a far cry from the exotic-shaped chicken nuggets and hot dogs of the past. As nostalgic as it may be to reminisce about the days of breaded stars and sailboats smothered in ketchup, it is a new era in the child care industry, where health and wellness and high-quality foods are the norm.

“We had always followed the USDA guidelines with our lunches,” says Wendy Monroe, the Executive Director of Great Bay Kids’ Company. “Now, we’re simply going above and beyond what the guidelines recommend and really focusing on what’s best for the children.”

Prompted by requests for healthier food on parent surveys and carried by the steady inertia of an overall healthy foods movement within the field, Great Bay Kids’ methodically set about a menu overhaul. To help facilitate the changeover, the center welcomed Kim Truesdale, the director of 5210 Steps Up!, a wellness initiative funded by United Way of the Greater Seacoast, to facilitate a day-long training in May, complete with a cooking demonstration, which produced homemade lentil tacos. From that point on, the writing was on the wall for the future of bologna sandwiches.

Whole wheat pasta replaced plain white pasta. Baked chicken usurped breaded chicken. Fresh fruit and zucchini bread bumped cookies out of the afternoon snack rotation. The food revolution was on and Great Bay Kids’ was not looking back.

Not to say there weren’t hiccups along the way. Finding food that was both healthy and tasty to the children proved tricky here and there. Coucous? A big hit. Quinoa? Needed some revisions to the recipe. Bulgur wheat? A high-fiber coarse grain that proved to be about as delectable as its name sounded, and was promptly expunged from the menu.

Teachers have feedback forms in the classrooms to document how the children responded to the meals and the cooks at the three Great Bay Kids’ sites (there are locations in Exeter and Newmarket) exchange tips and recipes, ensuring quality control and full bellies across the footprint.

Healthy food comes at a cost, however, and Great Bay Kids’ would not have been able to deliver on a completely renovated menu had it not been for their participation in the Seacoast Early Learning Alliance (SELA). Assembled, coordinated and funded by United Way of the Greater Seacoast, SELA is a collaborative of regional child care agencies, which allows Executive Directors to exchange best practices and, most importantly, save on their budgets through group buying power.

“SELA is a great example of United Way’s ability to bring people together to make a difference,” said Lauren Wool, Senior Director of Community Impact for United Way of the Greater Seacoast. “These agencies have been able to save money and re-invest it in quality programming that enriches children’s wellbeing, whether it’s nutrition, learning or social skills.”

By accessing these discounts, Great Bay Kids’ saved twenty percent on their food costs, which they re-invested into higher quality menu items.

“It’s important for us to promote health and wellness,” says Monroe. “If we can start here, early, and the children like it, we hope they’ll always eat well.”