There are great things happening with food, children, and their families at Burlington Children’s Space (BCS). Located in one of Vermont’s poorest neighborhoods, Burlington’s Old North End, BCS is Chittenden County’s only sliding-scale child care center. That means that their doors are open to a diverse array of Old North Enders and inclusivity is an important part of what makes BCS so dynamic. The generous food culture that has been developed at BCS reflects these values and is making a positive impact on the lives of the children who spend their days there.
These values around food can be observed in the words of the Executive Director of BCS, Sarah Adams-Kollitz, “Food is to me an embodiment of what we always want to create in a school, which is inclusion, generosity, and acceptance. And I don’t feel like there is any better tool than food to represent that and also to help make it happen.” (S. Adams-Kollitz, personal communication, November 30, 2015) From curbing obesity to ensuring food security, the many practices around food at Burlington Children’s Space have the power to make a positive difference in children’s health because “[t]he eating behaviors children develop during the preschool years continue to shape their food attitudes and eating patterns through adulthood.” (McBride & Dev, 2014)
In Vermont alone “[m]ore than 25,000 children under 18 live in food insecure households (21%).” (Hunger Free Vermont, n.d.) BCS recognized a need for food security in the families in their community so they developed various programs and events to help bridge the food gap. “Child-care programs often serve as homes away from home, where children adopt early nutrition-related behaviors. Young children appear more likely than older children to be influenced by adults in an eating environment, and food habits and patterns of nutrient intake acquired in childhood track into adolescence and adulthood.” (Benjamin Neelon & Briley, 2011) Hunger Free Vermont works to combat child hunger in Vermont. This video showcases how Burlington Children’s Space is working towards the same cause (Hunger Free Vermont, 2011, December 16):
Ezra is a 3 year-old boy in the Old Toddler classroom at BCS who has attended the school since he was an infant. Ezra’s family qualifies for financial assistance with tuition and free meal tickets. Even with two working parents, his family is still just under the poverty line. Ezra takes home a food bag every Friday that contains ingredients for at least one home cooked meal for the weekend. This extra food helps Ezra’s parents supply their children with a healthy home-cooked meal and supports them in having healthy food habits at home. When Ezra first started attending BCS his parents didn’t cook at home very much. That changed slowly as they began attending some of the cooking classes that Erinn teaches every couple of months. They have developed more confidence and skills, which in partnership with the food bags, has equipped them with what they need to cook healthy meals at home.
The most prominent factor in the food culture at BCS is the federally funded meal program, CACFP. “By ensuring that children receive adequate amounts of foods and beverages, served at appropriate intervals, child-care programs can make substantial contributions to helping prevent hunger in children.” (Benjamin Neelon & Briley, 2011) Two meals and one snack a day are provided at free or reduced rates for qualifying low income families. The full price meal ticket sales help pay for those parts of the food program that aren’t subsidized. One of the major costs involved that is not covered is the salary of BCS’s chef, Erinn Simon. Five days a week, Erinn cooks healthy balanced meals from scratch in the school kitchen, using fresh local ingredients when available. Here is a an example of a meal made by Erinn containing each component of a balanced meal (as dictated by CACFP): protein (cheese), vegetable (salad with carrots grown by preschoolers in the school garden!), grain (whole wheat pasta), and a fruit (banana).
Simon, E. (2015, October 15). Lunch! [photo]. Retrieved from http://bcslunchlady.blogspot.com/
Erinn makes delicious and diverse meals every day, and the children choose what and how much they eat. The teachers at BCS never force a child to eat and never ask them to finish what is on their plate before cleaning up. Those subtle messages can disrupt children’s natural understanding of their hunger and fullness cues:
Children are born with cues for hunger and fullness that allow them to regulate how much food they eat. However, they often lose the ability to recognize these cues at an early age because many adults take over the children’s job of deciding how much to eat. Adults—both parents and teachers—often make comments such as “One more bite and you will be done.” When they do this, they are suggesting to children, “I don’t trust your cues.” (McBride & Dev, 2014)
For example, Ezra doesn’t usually like to eat afternoon snack and his teachers respect that. Some children wake up ravenous from their afternoon nap but not Ezra. By respecting Ezra’s choice to not eat they are showing him that they trust him to listen to his own body’s needs. The teachers also refrain from withholding certain food items in the meal to encourage the eating of more healthier items because “[p]ressuring children to eat and restricting certain foods can lead to picky eating and cause children to overeat when they are not hungry, which can result in obesity.” (McBride & Dev, 2014)
Another way BCS mealtime helps children is by “[s]erving foods and beverages family style, where children select their own portions and serve themselves, [which] may encourage better self-regulation of intake in children.” (Benjamin Neelon & Briley, 2011) Children not only learn about portion sizes from family style dining but they also develop socially by asking each other to pass the food bowls and by sharing stories and conversations as they sit around the table together.
In family style dining, the teachers eat alongside the children modeling healthy eating behaviors. “Children mimic adults, and thus child-care providers have the opportunity to model and encourage healthful eating.” (Benjamin Neelon & Briley, 2011) The teachers can also guide the conversations to stimulate the trying of new foods. When Ezra’s teacher asked him how he liked the green beans during meal time, he responded with enthusiasm which encouraged his other peers to also try the green beans. Eating together has so many benefits, but daily mealtimes aren’t the only times when BCS eats together.
Every other month Burlington Children’s Space hosts a “family dinner” where the entire BCS community is invited to share an evening meal cooked by Erinn. The food for family dinner is donated by a local co-op food store, City Market, and there is always enough for everyone. Some parents arrive early to help Erinn prep for the meal while simultaneously deepening connections within the BCS community. Family dinner is one powerful example of how food at BCS goes beyond meeting a basic need to also building healthy community.
Erinn discussed the importance of this holistic approach to food in an article she wrote for Huffington Post, called “What I Learned About Love as a School Lunch Chef”:
We get so caught up in the mechanics of getting food in front of kids, at school and at home, that we forget what we’re actually doing – nourishing people we love. Food is a language we all share, and preparing and sharing food are powerful ways to show how much we care for kids, especially at school. (Simon, 2014, August 27)
Erinn Simon and Sarah Adams-Kollitz have worked hard together to make BCS’s food offerings what they are today. In response to my question about what makes BCS’s food program unique, Sarah said,
I think where our program is maybe unique and a little bit different is that we have tried to use the food program to really create a culture around food that isn’t just about meals, so that kind of draws families in and includes them. And that’s how the food bags and the family dinners started . . . how do we not just serve good food here at school but how do we help families serve good food at home and how do we show people how much good food can make a difference for everybody. (S. Adams-Kollitz, personal communication, 2015, November 30)
The lofty goals and intentions of Sarah and Erinn are being realized every day in tangible practices at BCS benefiting the health of Vermont’s children, and together as food advocates they are paving the way for other Vermont child care centers to follow suit.
Benjamin Neelon, S. E., & Briley, M. E. (2011). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Benchmarks for nutrition in child care. Journal of The American Dietetic Association, 111607-615. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.02.016
Hunger Free Vermont. (n.d.) Vermont hunger facts. Retrieved from http://www.hungerfreevt.org/learn/what-is-the-issue
Hunger Free Vermont. (2011, December 16). 14Free, Episode 14: Chittenden county [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSx_p-NyH10
McBride, B. A., & Dev, D. A. (2014). Preventing childhood obesity: Strategies to help preschoolers develop healthy eating habits. YC: Young Children, 69(5), 36-42.
Simon, E. (2014, August 27). What I learned about love as a school lunch chef. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/erinn-simon/fayl-blog-827_b_5688773.html
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APA cite in text as: (Shastina-Wallace, 2016)
APA cite in full References as: Ann-Wallace, S. (2016). Creating a healthy food culture at Burlington Children’s Space. Vermont Psychology. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p4elXk-r5
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Shastina Ann-Wallace is an artist and early educator in the beginning stages of her newfound career. Shastina received an AA in Fine Arts from College of Marin in 2012 and is currently a student at CCV majoring in Early Childhood Education. After several years of working in grocery stores her desire to work closely with children reached a tipping point, and she quit her repetitive mindless nut job to become a substitute teacher at Burlington Children’s Space. Working at BCS inspired Shastina to pursue a degree in education where she is discovering a wellspring of purpose and joy. She is currently refining her vision of the perfect fusion of her love of art, creativity, and children as she continues on her path of higher education and work. www.shastinarose.com