Celebrating (the right choices in) food!
March 14-20 is National CACFP Week, which aims to build awareness of how the federally funded U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) helps contribute to wellness, healthy growth and development of young children and adults across the country. The program provides meal reimbursement for children in child care centers, preschools, child development homes, child care homes (with a Child Care Assistance Provider Agreement) afterschool programs, and emergency shelters, as well as for adults in adult day care centers. The program is administered in Iowa through the bureau of Nutrition and Health Services in the Iowa Department of Education.
Care providers who participate in the CACFP receive reimbursement when they serve healthy, nutritious foods, which fosters lifelong healthy eating and physical activity habits and helps reassure families that their child or adult family member’s health and well-being are the provider’s top priority. In an age where lifestyles are often sedentary, it is more important than ever to reinforce and celebrate healthy alternatives.
Recently, two of Iowa’s early care CACFP providers were recognized as winners of the 2021 Iowa’s Healthiest State Award for their work to improve the health and wellness of their students.
Walking the walk at the Des Moines Area Community College Child Development Center
Sherri Sciarrotta, director of the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Child Development Center, has been with the center for 17 years, all of which included participation in the CACFP. Operating with a firm belief that by providing children with healthy food choices and activities and offering opportunities to participate in those choices, Sciarrotta says children can develop life-long skills of healthy eating and healthy lifestyle choices.
“We provide training for all the early education students at DMACC,” Sciarrotta said. “We are a model school and want to emphasize and show best practices to our students in our early childhood program who are student teaching and working in our center, and show best practices to our families and our children. Participating in the CACFP is the model for healthy lifestyles especially with food choices.”
And this child care center means business when walking the walk of teaching young children the tenants of healthy lifestyles. The center’s cook, Brent Baade, is a bona fide chef, a graduate of the DMACC culinary program, who conjures healthy menus and whose practice of cooking with the children is standard fare. The children are involved in their food journey from start to finish. They plant it, grow it, harvest it and prepare it.
Children are not served juices or over-processed foods, but instead, enjoy the benefits of locally sourced foods, with particular concentration on incorporating fruits and vegetables. Armed with food kits containing tools specially designed for children, everyone can participate in cutting garden fresh cucumbers, or harvesting lettuce, washing it, and drying it in a salad spinner. They even make their own butter.
And there’s nothing more local or fresh than produce grown on location in three different gardens.
“Children in the Infant Room, ranging from 8 weeks to 2-year-olds, have their own garden space,” Sciarrotta said. “They have an apple tree, and help with planting and watering. The 2-to-5-year-olds have two garden spaces where they do square foot gardening.”
Last spring, with late planting stemming from setbacks related to the pandemic, the young gardeners still managed to grow peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes.
A recent recipient of a 2021 Iowa’s Healthiest State Award, the center plans to use the $500 prize money to purchase indoor grow lights that enable early seed planting for later transplant in on-site gardens. In the past, the center has also partnered with the DMACC horticulture students to purchase plants.
“We think food is a critical component of healthy lifestyles,” Sciarrotta said. “CACFP drives that approach. The program gives us the founding principles and then we live by those principles and guidelines.”
The reimbursement piece of CACFP helps justify the center’s ability to pay the sometimes higher prices for food that is locally sourced and contributes to the success of the center’s mission of teaching healthy lifestyles.
“We know the validity of locally sourced foods,” Sciarrotta said. “We want to support locally grown foods, support our farmers, and support our local communities. When I get that reimbursement, it helps me offset those expenses.”
The DMACC Child Development Center also supports continuity of care as much as possible, whereby an 8-week-old infant assigned to a caregiver will have that same caregiver until kindergarten. The caregiver then knows well that child’s history and eating habits and can better help that child understand what to eat.
“We really want to emphasize that we are training future educators and future directors of centers,” Sciarrotta said. “We’re here for our children first and foremost, and we are also here for our early childhood education students. They are getting their educational opportunities and going out all over the state of Iowa. They are going to raise the quality of programming for the centers where they are employees or directors.”
Healthy choices hit home at Handy’s Home Daycare and Preschool in Norwalk
Heather Handy, a certified elementary school teacher, along with her co-provider and husband, Daniel, will celebrate 10 years this June of providing in-home childcare for a maximum of 16 children up to age 12, at Handy’s Home Daycare and Preschool in Norwalk. Currently serving children ranging in age from 18 months to 7-years-old, Handy’s is also a recipient of a 2021 Iowa Healthiest State Award, and a veteran participant in the CACFP.
“Before we started CACFP, I wasn’t even aware of the amount of sodium that was in certain foods,” Handy said. “I am now more aware of the nutritional content of food, and we have ruled out the processed food. With assessments done through CACFP every year, we are making sure we are offering foods that are high in all of the different vitamins, and we are having seasonal fruits and vegetables.”
A regular feature of Handy’s care are educational activities like cutting open a fruit or vegetable and talking about what is inside it. Children also participate in taste test parties, where they guess what is inside a new fruit or vegetable, guess if it will taste sweet or sour, and then finally taste the produce. What’s more, the children get plenty of exercise and zero screen time during the day.
“The children have become more aware,” Handy said. “Recently, one child said, ‘We don’t have apple juice at Miss Heather’s because apple juice isn’t healthy.’ I explained it is okay to have once in a while, but we shouldn’t have it very often, so that is why I don’t give it to you here. We talk to them about why we don’t have juice, but have milk and water to drink, and why we only have white milk instead of strawberry or chocolate milk. We help them understand that there is too much sugar in some drinks.”
Handy believes it is important to share her knowledge with parents so they can help their children make healthy choices. She understands that many parents are simply unaware, and notes that as an early mom, she was unaware of the health benefits of the different foods and the importance of whole grains versus processed items.
For example, at first some parents did not understand the healthy celebration policy. Why weren’t cupcakes okay?
“We have five birthdays in February,” Handy said. “And children may be having cupcakes in school and cupcakes at home, so that’s a lot of sugar! We don’t have any sugary desserts at all now, even with celebrations or special events. We make sure what we are having is credible by the food program. The most sugary thing we have, rarely, is muffins, and those are homemade muffins.”
Handy also sends out newsletters to highlight the importance of drinking water, the importance of exercise, and the importance of the different vitamins.
“I am a perfectionist, so I strive to want to be the best. I feel participating in CACFP helps me to achieve being the best provider I can be.”
For more information, visit the Iowa Department of Education CACFP webpage.