The Tri-County Head Start Program knows how to make the most of a good thing.
Every year, National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week is celebrated in mid-March and is designed to raise awareness of how the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) works to combat hunger. However, one could say the Tri-County Head Start Program celebrates the occasion year-round by implementing CACFP goals and tenets daily in the nutritional lives of its young participants.
Head Start, a federally funded preschool program, has three independent centers in Iowa and also partners with other centers including partnerships with school districts in the Tri-County (Blackhawk, Buchanan, Grundy) area near Waterloo.
“I am really passionate about what I do here and it is really fun to work with such a great agency where we can bring to life our nutrition goals,” said Tracey Sauke, dietitian for the Tri-County Head Start Program.
Sauke, a registered dietitian, has worked with the Tri-County program for nine years, consulting with the centers each week, creating menus, overseeing the nutrition curriculum and working closely with Lyz Schmitz, chief financial officer for Tri-County Head Start.
“We are serving children age 5 and under, so it’s a great time to introduce them to a variety of fruits and vegetables, for them to learn about nutrition and health and where their food comes from, gardening, local foods and processed versus whole foods,” Schmitz said. “We are serving a poverty-level population, so doing some empowerment with not only the students but families regarding food and food security is definitely part of our program overall.”
Previously a CPA and auditor in nonprofit organizations, Schmitz worked in the private sector for about eight years, then returned to the nonprofit world and has been with Tri-County Head Start for five years, managing the finances and overseeing the nutrition department.
Both Schmitz and Sauke agree that the Tri-County Head Start Program would not be possible without the support of CACFP. Participation in CACFP helps enable the center to offer a variety of activities and services pertaining to good nutrition.
“The structure of the CACFP is a great baseline for us in ensuring that we are serving children the nutritional requirements that they need,” Schmitz said. “A lot of CACFP best practices are in line with our best practices such as serving a variety of foods. We talk about serving the rainbow of foods, serving fresh, and serving home-cooked versus heat-and-serve. The funding, guidance and support that we get from CACFP definitely helps us do all of that.”
With the help of CACFP funds they typically serve breakfast, lunch and snacks to around 225 participants (450 meals per day), including teachers. Serving teachers is required by CACFP.
Funds were also used to purchase a new, industrial-size pressure steamer that holds six pans and enables them to cook their own fresh vegetables.
“We provide a food activity each month,” Sauke said. “Last month we sprouted beans in the classroom and this month the kids are learning about citrus, so they get an orange, a mandarin orange, grapefruit and lemon to taste and compare. They also receive informational handouts.”
Some children participate in the home visitation program and receive a 90-minute visit each week from staff who conduct in-home taste tests.
Schmitz said they have also done some take-home activities around gardening such as sending home radish kits that contained seeds and everything needed to grow radishes at home. They chose radishes because they grow fast and are easy to maintain. Sauke said that developmentally and age wise, gardening is a very appropriate STEM activity.
“We can use CACFP funds for our activities if they are considered creditable snacks, like making our own salsa or hummus,” Sauke said.
CACFP offers a nutrition recipe box full of great recipes the centers can use, and also has a new tool that helps them make their own standardized recipes. Standardizing recipes means making the recipe exactly as it is written to get the proper amount of nutrition. For example, a cup of a certain ingredient might equal one protein, one grain, or one vegetable, ensuring correct servings for creditable amounts so serving size meets serving guidelines.
The program promotes eating family-style meals. Family-style meals help children learn fine motor skills, portioning and socialization and children are proud when they can serve themselves and master those skills. The kids track their family-style meals and turn in their results for In Kind Credit. In Kind Credit is applied to meet a federal grant requirement for a non-federal match. A non-federal match is any kind of community or parent involvement like take-home activities or homework where parents are interacting with their children.
CACFP training encourages offering culturally appropriate meals, so Tri-County Head Start highlights and celebrates a different culture each month.
“Some of our cultural celebration meals have been so popular that we have added them to our regular meal rotation,” Schmitz said. “When we did French culture, we served chicken ratatouille and our kids loved it! Now it’s in permanent meal rotation.”
During the month of March children will enjoy traditional Irish-style bangers and mash with peas, and chicken and waffles, a traditional Southern food usually made with fried chicken but will instead feature chicken tenders since fried foods are prohibited by CACFP.
“Children love new experiences, so we try to make it fun for them,” Schmitz said. “They like trying new things, they like the activities that we do and they like having things to take home that they can do with their families.”
Staff also access additional resources and try to line up with statewide initiatives like Iowa Healthiest State, 5-2-1-0 Healthy Choices Count!, Choose Iowa Food of the Month, Double Up Food Bucks, or Iowa’s Spend Smart. Eat Smart program to provide resources to families for budget friendly recipes utilizing in-season foods.
“We get a lot of good feedback particularly from parents who tell us their children will try new things at home,” Schmitz said. “We had a great story from a grandma who took her grandchild to the grocery store and the child was allowed to choose one treat. The child chose blueberries! The grandparent was expecting the child to choose candy, or sugary cereal, or chips but they chose blueberries saying, ‘Well, yes, because I had them at school and I really like them!’. We get a lot of those stories from our families. Kids are coming home and trying things and saying they had food at school they discovered they liked.”
Parents are very appreciative of how recipes use all WIC eligible items within WIC guidelines.
“Parents think it is so awesome to have something they can use their WIC funds for and go do,” Sauke said. “For example, we take into account that not everyone might have a blender, so we try to be very conscious of that in the recipes we are promoting.”
Schmitz and Sauke are excited about what the future holds for their nutrition program.
“Local procurement is a huge piece of what we are working on,” Schmitz said. “We are working on some initiatives to promote and use more local foods in our program and promote local foods with our families. We are looking to incorporate farmers markets and provide families with a monthly farmers market box of produce. We have used the local food hub but have also been in contact with some local farmers and producers to get some partnerships going to get local foods from them.”
The program currently has a successful partnership with Apples on the Avenue Orchard in Nashua. Every other week for the entire apple growing season the orchard provided 500 apples of varying colors and textures for use in recipes and taste testing. Rolling Hills Greenhouse supplies hydroponic lettuce and nearby Country View Dairy supplies locally made farm fresh yogurt. Discussions are also taking place with another local farmer that specializes in Southern produce like collard greens, okra, sweet potato and corn to provide fresh and in-season food. The children have also participated in some virtual field trips pertaining to nutrition and local foods and this coming fall, the group hopes to provide such experiences in person.
Tri-County Head Start is part of a Farm to Early Care Coalition and Sauke and Schmitz have been selected by the National Head Start Association to speak at the National Head Start Conference in May about some of the things they are doing in their nutrition program.
“The folks we work with at CACFP are very helpful,” Schmitz said. “If we have questions we can just email them and there’s no judgment, there’s no ‘Oh my gosh you’re doing this wrong and I gotcha!’ They really are helpful with educating you about how things should be done. And there are flexibilities, like being able to utilize software systems and forms that can help with documentation requirements. The state provides great forms, but there are also ways to customize forms to meet your specific needs and create what works for you.”
Sauke said the more you look at the CACFP network the more you discover a vast network of resources and people willing to help. If you are a home provider looking to participate in CACFP, there are plenty of home providers willing to help you out and answer questions. There are also numerous Facebook groups to follow for ideas.
“Don’t think it has to be complicated,” Sauke said. “It’s not as complex as people may think. Basically, the closer to how a product originally came, like that chicken breast, green beans, corn or whole grain bread, that is a creditable CACFP meal. Kids like simple things, too. Don’t overcomplicate it. Utilize your resources.”