YWCA helps children eat better so they learn better

What can we do better? When the YWCA of Kalamazoo started asking itself that question in 2015 throughout the organization change began to happen. 

“Baby steps” is how Nichole Westrate, director of the Children’s Center at the YWCA in Kalamazoo, describes the actions taken in the children’s program since then. Yet, better behavior among the children served and huge savings in the amount spent on food are already being realized.

The YWCA, dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women, started reflecting on its practices across the board in 2015. When the organization received funding that allowed it to serve more families that were in transition and experiencing a crisis or toxic stress, the need emerged to stop and evaluate the work it was doing to determine what might better fit the needs of those being served. 

The organization realized that what was needed was beyond the services that they were able to provide at the time. Then, Westrate says, the questions asked were: “But where else were the kids going to go? And if we don't take this challenge on are we really living out our mission?”

The YWCA accepted the challenge.

“We decided as an organization that this is our work,” says Westrate. “And so we started exploring every avenue that we could think of as it relates to supporting healthy brain development, empowering families to be their child's first teacher, and act as a role model for them.” 

Westrate leads the Children’s Center which encompasses Early Childhood Learning, Youth Development, and Family Advocacy. For the Children’s Center, two concerns emerged—children were not able to process their emotions in the classroom and high overhead costs, of which food was a significant expense.

Their exploration to find new ways to cut food costs led them to the Farm to School grant program through the Michigan State University Extension Program, which helps Michigan children and families have better access to good food. 

The YWCA also uncovered the Hoop Houses for Health, a program of the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) that helps vulnerable families and farmers at the same time. Through the program, farmers receive funds to build a hoop house. MIFMA works with community partner organizations, including Head Start and Great Start Readiness Programs, such as those at the YWCA to connect them with farmers.  

Through the program, the YWCA has developed a strong relationship with the local farmers Ben Martin and his partner Sarah of Soil Friends and the YW also would like to work with other local farmers. “Right now we are looking to partner with more farmers, more growers, so that's my plug,” Westrate says with a laugh.

Discovering the two healthy food programs as it pursued best practices for dealing with food processing, buying, and research was significant for the Children’s Center.

“All of those avenues converging together at once, that set us on our course,” Westrate says. “And we're still early into that. I would say we're still in the infancy stages. It's about mind shift, and culture change, not just as an organization, but with all of our individual staff, and that's difficult,” Westrate says.

Because the kitchen staff had not eaten or been served a lot of fresh food throughout their lives the changes were not always easy to adapt to. They had eaten a certain kind of food in school and so they served the same kind of food. 

“It's just the way it's done, right?” Westrate says. “And so that's why we saw this as part of our work. We feel at the YWCA of Kalamazoo that our work is to disrupt systems and really focus on how the change systems that keep people oppressed and keep our most vulnerable in poverty and violent situations. … It's so interesting how all of this work, even in the Children’s Center and our farm-to-preschool program, really meshes with the Cradle Kalamazoo initiative, which is the initiative to address infant mortality. Because what that initiative is proving through data and their work is that kiddos start out behind before they are born. 

“So we see our farm-to-preschool program as one way to disrupt that cycle and help our kids catch up equitably. Our kids need the freshest foods. Our kids need to know how to source local foods at little to no cost. Our families need to know that.”

Working with the Food Innovation Center at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and its Valley Hub, which provides a link from farms to those who serve large numbers of meals, has changed the way children and families eat in the Children’s Center. 

“What I love about the Valley Hub is they have their in-season foods,” Westrate says. “So right now (in February) what are people in homes typically eating as far as fruits and veggies? It's canned or frozen. And so my staff in the kitchen can get on the Valley Hub list and place their order and it's in-season items that they might not typically have thought of.”

With funds from the MSU farm-to-preschool grant, the YWCA purchased a number of kitchen tools that help with serving fresh produce. Westrate says with a laugh that the dehydrator is her favorite. “Right now on the Valley Hub, they have beets and root vegetables. And so with the dehydrator, I'm telling my kitchen staff, I want to see the sweet potato chips. I want to see the beet chips. Let's play around with this.”

At first, the youngsters were not sure what to make of the fresh food. But Westrate had read that it can take up to 20 servings of a new food before young ones will develop a taste for it. So if a child does not like a certain food the first time they are likely to find it cooked in a slightly different manner and served again and again. There will be other foods for them to eat until they learn to like the new, fresh food being offered. Slowly, they learn to expand their food horizons.

Westrate says some youngsters who refused any fruit or veggies that did not come from a can are now avid salad eaters. “Now, these kids chow down any type of salad,” Westrate says. “When in doubt, put some type of creative salad on the menu, and they will love it.” 

Sometimes the produce being offered on the Food Hub is something the kitchen staff has never heard of. “We look it up. And we come up with five to 10 recipes that we can use it for.  And that's why we have a Pinterest page,” she says with a laugh. “So that is helping us learn. It's helping us introduce these ideas. It's keeping us innovative. It’s saving us money.”

How much money? 

“We've cut our spending on food in half,” compared to what was spent in 2012-2013, she says. A combination of things brought about those reduced costs. “We're being more intentional about how we approach our kitchen. Our staff is better trained. We have nutrition education across the board for our staff and our kiddos.”

There are many ways to teach nutrition education but none of them in the Childhood Center involve sitting in a classroom getting traditional instruction. Instead, in the Early Childhood Education Center nutrition ed is woven into the dinner conversation during family style meals.

“We're all sitting around the table. We have big bowls that the kids can scoop from and we pass around. So we're having lots of math conversations, and social-emotional conversations, and talking about these beautifully colored foods. 

“You'll hear kids say, ‘I had spaghetti squash at my house once,’ and then another girl's like, ‘Well, I've never had that before,’ and so there's all this really rich conversation and questions that come up. And then, maybe, another kid says, ‘Well, what's spaghetti squash?’ And our skilled teachers would say, ‘Yeah, what is spaghetti squash? What do you think that could be?’ and maybe those questions develop their next topic of study because we want to take their interests and the things that are relevant to them and use that as the driver for what the curriculum looks like.”

The kitchen staff has received nutrition training in partnership with the Van Buren Intermediate School District. As the program has evolved, the kitchen recently hired a part-time person to work with the woman who runs the kitchen and their volunteers. That will give the kitchen leader time to explore more innovative ways to feed the children.

“It's like told her yesterday, ‘If you think about being on the surface of the Earth, I feel like we've been digging down to where the worms are. We need to dig down to where the dinosaur bones are,” Westrate says with a laugh. “We need to go further. 

“That's really part of the work, answering those questions like 'how much food are we using'? 'How much food can we buy in-season and store later on?' Theoretically, we could buy most of our food in the spring and summer, and not purchase a whole lot in the fall and winter. And we just aren't there yet. But we are open to partnerships and support. So if anybody is like, ‘You know what? I want to help the YWCA dig down to the dinosaur bones’ — we are all about that.”

When it came to dealing with children’s ability to process their emotions, serving better food was only one intervention. The YWCA program was dealing with children in the classroom who were being triggered and who found that for a variety of reasons and they couldn't be in the room. So they would run out. They ended up in Westrate’s office. 

Ultimately, one part of the solution was to take grant funding and turn what had been Westrate’s office into a multi-sensory space where children spend time. Through trial-and-error, they found it worked best with a schedule that allowed every child enrolled in the Center time in the multi-sensory space. Small groups also take place there. 

“The food program has been a big piece of those universal precautions that really have changed things for us in the Children's Center and we don't have the run outs. We don't have run outs anymore. They're done. So that tells me that children are able to process their emotions in their classrooms, and that was the goal originally.”

For Westrate, it’s not just about the food, that's just a vehicle. 

“It's more than just ‘let's give the vulnerable kids fresh food.’ It's more than just that,” she says. “There are so many aspects — there’s creativity involved, it enriches the conversation, it’s something to connect school to home. … It’s about impacting families in positive ways and this is just one way to do it.” 

She goes on to say: “This is part of our work as the YWCA. Eliminating racism and empowering women doesn't just have to be a protest or a training on racism. It can be those things, but it's also really reflecting on your own practices as an individual and as an organization to say ‘What am I doing? What is our organization doing that continues to keep people where they are? And how can we be different?' We can make the rules for ourselves, we can make the rules for our organization. So if something doesn't work then change it. It's really that easy and that difficult.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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