By Alyssa Pitcher
Homemade, mouth-watering broccoli and cheddar soup is a favorite dish of the kids at the Whatcom County Boys & Girls Club. Even though the kids are served cheese pizza every couple of weeks, they are always looking forward to the vegetable-rich soup. It’s a positive sign for the club’s new meal plan, which emphasizes healthy eating for healthy bodies.
The club started the meal plan program for Blaine, Bellingham and Ferndale branches in September 2014. The club will provide its own lunch and snacks for its summer programs for the first time this year.
“It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s a step up in quality,” said Kim Grams, chief operating officer of the Whatcom County Boys & Girls Club. The meal program will promote healthy eating by providing food and education to club members. So far it has been a success, Grams said.
“We can’t set them up for a great future if the basics aren’t covered,” she said. Many of the club’s programs deal with movement, exercise and making healthy choices. Nutrition is a large part of a healthy lifestyle and Grams felt the club needed to do more than just tell children what kinds of food to eat.
“If children aren’t eating well, they can’t study and they can’t do well in school,” Grams said. “There was just a huge need to make sure we were feeding kids well.”
Previously, the club was only able to provide meals in Bellingham. Snacks were donated from the Bellingham Food Bank, Grams said, adding that hiring someone dedicated to the program is what has made it successful.
Chandler Shea, the club’s nutrition program coordinator, is a Western Washington University graduate who is serving the Boys & Girls Club through AmeriCorps. She has had seven years’ experience working in restaurants and studied food psychology at Western. Food psychology encompasses the relationships people have with the food they eat and the connotations that are tied to different types of food. For example, Shea avoids labeling dishes as vegetarian because many of the kids she serves will be less likely to eat it.
Shea makes the food personally in a central kitchen in Bellingham before distributing it to the other Whatcom County clubs. The club produces about 225 meals per week at approximately $3 each, and will produce 350 meals each week over the summer. Some of the meals get reimbursed by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) but that doesn’t cover everything, Grams said.
The focus is on whole foods that meet OSPI and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, rather than packaged food, Grams said. The club emphasizes low-cost ingredients to teach kids how to eat healthy on a budget.
“Meat is very expensive so if you’re trying to teach kids how to eat healthy and economically it’s hard to include a ton of meat,” Shea said. She serves two dishes a week that contain meat and three a week that are vegetarian.
Typical menus may include vegetarian refried bean and cheese enchilada casserole with strawberries and corn, or red lentil dal soup with steamed vegetables and whole-wheat pitas. Every meal is served with fat-free milk.
“One thing Chandler has really focused on is educating kids about the things that they are eating,” Grams said. “She’s got them to eat many things they wouldn’t eat in September that they now love.”
Another emphasis of the meal plan is educating the club members about the food they are putting into their bodies. All of the food is labeled and the kids participate in several activities meant to make learning about food fun and interactive, Shea said.
“We are starting to do cooking clubs that have a nutrition-based curriculum,” Shea said. At cooking club kids help to make food for their own meals, for example a spice mixture for chili. Shea said they get to work with measuring cups, learn about different ingredients and help clean up after they’re done in the kitchen.
“Our kids are hungry and it just seemed the right thing for the club to do; it was a step up to try and provide that extra meal for the kids,” Grams said. She said parents are grateful for the program because their kids aren’t hungry when they pick them up.