Many food banks operate catering programs for school-age populations, such as After School Meals and Summer Food Service Program. But catering for young children in Early Care and Education (ECE) programs is less common. Children who attend ECE programs typically consume a substantial portion of their daily calories while at school. Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, with a grant from General Mills Foundation and Nemours National Office of Policy and Prevention, piloted the Meals for Good program to provide fresh, healthy catered meals for young children in ECE as a strategy of nutrition improvement and obesity prevention.
Food banks are uniquely positioned in communities to provide catered meal service to ECE programs. Food banks are known in communities as household names. Some families with school-age children who participate in food bank meal programs may have younger siblings. Others may encounter food banks by volunteering through their employers or faith communities. Food bank community kitchens also have experience with following USDA nutrition standards. Food bank community kitchens and ECE programs make a natural partnership for providing healthy, nutritious meals for a community’s youngest children.
During Meals for Good, initial conversations with ECE directors and key community stakeholders showed that there is a tremendous need for improved meals in ECE. Second Harvest provided healthy catered meals to four ECE programs during the pilot. All four had no kitchen on-site and parents had been providing meals for the day.
Feedback about the taste and quality of the catered meals was positive. The ECE directors reported that the children and staff enjoyed the meals. Comments include “It all tastes very good!” and “We all LOVE it!” One program had the meals delivered family style, and reported that the children loved sharing meals this way. In addition, the catered meals followed USDA guidelines to assure optimal nutrition for young children.
Second Harvest is working to overcome challenges faced in the pilot project in order to bring these meals to more children in ECE centers in Central Florida. Our team is working through the paperwork required to make the meals eligible for reimbursement through the Child and Adult Care Feeding Program, which will ultimately make the program financially sustainable. Second Harvest bid on and won the contract for Orange County Head Start, meaning that Second Harvest will begin providing 4,000 meals per day to children in 20 ECE programs in Orange County this fall. Building a partnership between Second Harvest and ECE programs led to the successful implementation of a program that will provide better meals for our community’s young children.
We recognize that our work is innovative for the food bank network, so Second Harvest has documented the lessons we learned during Meals for Good and developed a tool kit to share with other food bank community kitchens seeking to expand to serving the youngest in their communities. The toolkit is available on our website. We are excited with our progress and proud to be preparing the children of Central Florida for successful futures through a healthy and nutritious start!
*Joanna Mackie is a consultant at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.
Tags: Fighting Hunger in Action , Nutrition , Florida , Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida , General Mills, Inc. and General Mills Foundation