Learning Tree Child Care Center in Howell is serving organic, minimally processed meals, locally sourced when available. There's not a hot dog in sight, and the kids don't really seem to mind at all. 30 % of Michigan's children are classified as overweight or obese. The Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics have identified child care centers as having an essential role in the fight to combat this health epidemic. With levels continuing to increase, The Learning Tree Child Care Center, owned by Howell resident Carol Gatewood with facilities in Howell, South Lyon and Livonia, has rewritten their mealtime menu.
Many of the children at Learning Tree consume the majority of their meals there. “Eating goes beyond a physical need to just fill hungry tummies,” says Gatewood. “It is a sensory, social and emotional activity, and a great opportunity for learning. You won’t find any fried or processed foods on our menu. Since the day we opened in 1982, we’ve taken our responsibility to provide the highest quality of child care very seriously and the meals we provide are an extension of that care,”
In 2009, The Learning Tree began evaluating the role of food and their daily menus in supporting the well-being for the children in their care and as central part of their philosophy to create a safe and healthy environment.
“At that time more and more information was in the media about the concerns of the great distances food travels from far-away farms and potential effects of pesticides and antibiotics used in industrial farms,” says Karen Ballard, Regional Director. “Just as we take care to keep hazards out of our classrooms, it is also our responsibility to serve high quality meals to fuel little bodies.”
When the center first embarked on their menu change, there were no other similar-sized child care centers in Michigan with organic menus to use as a best practice. “We literally had to start from scratch and knew our main challenges would be finding vendors that could supply organic foods in the quantity we needed, as well as keeping costs in check. Organic simply costs more – any parent who’s shopped for organic can tell you that. We knew that we needed to spend tuition dollars wisely and be accountable to parents in this current economy.”
The center opted for a gradual approach, which allowed for greater control over costs. Organic produce was first, followed by milk and finally organic chicken and eggs. Currently The Learning Tree’s menu is about 80% organic. The long-term goal is 100% organic.
For their dedication to healthy meals, The Learning Tree was recently recognized nationally for Excellence in School Meals by Kiwi, a consumer magazine focused on natural and organic family lifestyles, and awarded $2,500, which will be used for on-going family education.
Parents are taking notice too. “Many of our prospective parents visit our centers because they’ve heard about our meals,” says Alyssa Sullivan, Howell’s center director.
Getting fresh, minimally processed foods prepared for four sites and more than 800 meals every day is no small undertaking. “Since we don’t use any prepared or heat-and-eat foods, our meal preparation takes time, planning and coordination,” says Ballard.
Ballard reflects on their three-year path to incorporate organic, “It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. What started as a single step toward a more healthy experience for our children and families has grown into a business model that is sustainable and will have a life-long impact even after our kids leave us.”
Chicken Broccoli Burrito
1lb cooked organic chicken breast
1 cup fresh or frozen organic broccoli
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 box couscous
Whole wheat tortillas
1. Cook couscous according to the directions on box
2. Dice the organic chicken breasts
3. Mix couscous, organic chicken, broccoli and cheese.
4. Place mixture into a 9x12 baking dish and back at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes.
5. You want cheese and mixture heated all the way through
6. Scoop mixture into whole wheat tortilla, add salsa, and additional cheese if you want
The Learning Tree’s Birthday Fruit Smoothie Recipe
1 c. 1% milk
1 c. frozen organic berries
½ c. 1% yogurt
Mix in blender until smooth. For those with milk allergies, smoothie can be made using just ice and fruit.