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Farm to (preschool) table: Abeona House gets healthy food to kids

 

A group of 3-year-olds are enjoying their lunch inside a classroom of the Abeona House Child Discovery Center. Seated at two long tables, forks in hand, these kids are really into talking about what’s on their plate.

Today it’s mac 'n cheese, followed by tomorrow’s tuna sandwich and cucumber salad, Thursday’s lentil burgers and pita bread, and Friday is, of course, pizza day. Whole-wheat pizza day.

All the kids here know Abeona’s Chef Sarah Bouley, who cooks, plates and serves the student meals.

"Today the mac and cheese was our first ever dish served at Abeona house," says Chef Sarah. "In that macaroni is cauliflower, yogurt, a little Monterey jack blend, and a classic béchamel sauce … and the kids love it!"

This would be impossible without a commercial kitchen, says Emmy Odweyer, founding executive director of AbeonaHouse. She founded the center after Hurricane Katrina  when she noticed a lack of childcare. It started small: 30 kids in a 100-year-old shotgun house -- which definitely did not have a commercial kitchen. When Odweyer saw some available space at First Grace Methodist Church in 2011, its big kitchen was a selling point. This was the same time Ms. Emmy remembers seeing Chef Sarah’s application for running the food program, she recalls.

"We asked for someone who would help us develop a farm to table locally sourced food program. I remember one of the items on her proposed menu was pink pancakes … you know, pancakes with beet juice."

Chef Sarah has quite a few tricks up her sleeve that get children to try, and enjoy, challenging foods that are hard to sell. Like mushrooms.

"I remember we used to get shitake mushrooms by the box and I used to roast them so they were real crispy and dry, and the preschoolers were eating them like chips, you know? And one girl said, ‘You cannot eat those, they’re mushrooms,’ and the other girl said. 'No, they’re not mushrooms, they’re good!'"

And like everything else, it all comes down to peer pressure. Ms. Emmy has seen this domino effect in action. If one kid likes it, it must be good …

"A lot of it was the influence of the peers, having an exciting attitude. If Cadence is telling Oliver that the hummus is really tasty, he’s gonna give it a try. So it was interesting to watch the children change."

Healthy food initiatives have been implemented in schools across the country, due to Michelle Obama’s $11 billion National School Lunch program. The program reimburses participating schools for meals served, and provides access to fresh food at a lower price. The problem is, the kids aren’t always eating the new options, and money is being wasted on uneaten, tossed food. Last month, CBS reported that kids in the 100,000 schools that signed up for the program are ending up "too hungry to learn" and schools are one by one opting out of the program.

So why is an initiative that’s struggling to get kids on board working for this group of toddlers? It's because they're toddlers, Chef Sarah says.

"I’ve come to realize it’s really about getting the fresh foods into the little guys, because once they’ve had it when they’re little, they’re much more comfortable when they’re older. When these kids are 7 and 8 they’re just gonna be more open to food and just desire more nutrients because their body knows what that does for it. It just becomes natural."

Chef Sarah spends $2,000 a week to feed 58 kids. She does all the shopping at local grocery stores and small urban farms, and picks herbs from the Abeona House garden. Some of her budget comes from the monthly tuition parents pay to the center.

Most public schools don’t get any extra revenue to pay for a food program like the one Chef Sarah runs. But Ms. Emmy’s working on it. Abeona House is part of the NOLA Early Learning Alliance, "so we're reaching out through that partnership to childcare centers to start locally sourcing their food," says Odweyer. "We’re going to start with milk because everyone uses hundreds of gallons of milk a month, and that’s an easy way to get everyone in on the conversation. And then once everyone starts realizing the cost savings from that bulk purchasing, we can talk about the rest of the serving."

Abeona House is one of several organizations focused on better food in schools, including Rethink New Orleans and the Edible Schoolyard. But most kids are offered pre-made, reheated, cheaper food each day for lunch. Getting healthier, fresher food to older kids in larger schools will take a ground-up approach.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson writes about New Orleans for NolaVie.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer at WWNO, The Moth and Listening Post and cofounder of Bring Your Own.