By Maire Dekle, Common Market
Butternut squash and honeycrisp apple soup. Free-range chicken quesadillas. Fresh-baked rainbow carrot whole-wheat muffins.
Chef Erica Lewis and her kitchen crew serve up morning snack, lunch, and afternoon snack for about 170 children at this early care program, located in West Philadelphia. The Caring Center has long had a commitment to serving healthy, home-cooked meals, but as many food service professionals could attest, there can be all kinds of challenges: from limited cold-storage space for fresh produce and meat, to the additional prep time and labor required, to the legwork needed to identify quality ingredients (sustainably produced, minimally processed, and ideally, locally sourced).
Erica and The Caring Center partner with The Common Market, a nonprofit local food distributor based in Philadelphia, to help lighten that legwork and source sustainable produce, meat, grains, and more. The Common Market works with a network of family-owned farms in the Mid-Atlantic, teaming up with producers to source, aggregate, and distribute their products to food service staff like Erica.
In just the last three months, The Caring Center has sourced more than 3,500 pounds of food from local producers, supporting dozens of small- and mid-sized family farms within our region. Ground turkey, chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, and the much-loved Honeycrisp apples have been among the top items, and feedback has been very positive. (One child even tried chicken for the first time…and discovered he liked it!)
How does The Caring Center make local sourcing work for them? Erica identifies where farm-fresh foods will have the greatest impact, be most cost-effective, and meet parents’ requests: antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey; produce in peak season; whole wheat flours. She sources other items from broadline distributors, bread and milk distributors, and occasionally retailers. The Caring Center participates in the Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), receiving reimbursement for meals. At this point, Erica and her assistant Tammy have mastered their CACFP-compliant recipes, recording, and reporting.
Additionally, thanks to grant funding, The Common Market is able to offer a discount to child care providers, with the goal of building capacity around local food sourcing and preparation. Chefs like Erica who have the skills and know-how to work with fresh ingredients gain new experience in local sourcing — and can pass those skills on to other ECE staff.
The Caring Center’s farm to ECE commitment continues beyond the kitchen. At family-style meals in their classrooms, children are encouraged to try new foods: from Brussels sprouts to blueberries, acorn squash to new apple varieties. Posted profiles of featured farmers provide more information for families and staff about where their children’s food is coming from. Farm to ECE programming on-site includes Erica’s cooking classes and gardening. (This past summer’s crop featured cantaloupes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, basil…and one watermelon!)
Erica and The Caring Center have demonstrated that they are local sourcing superstars. They consider quality food service to be an integral part of their program, with local foods as a part of their appeal. But what are their additional secret ingredients for farm to ECE success? For local sourcing to be a sustainable part of a center’s food program, food service staff and leadership must have the passion and intent to make healthier, more sustainable choices for the children they serve.
We’ve also seen that this work needs to be built on a foundation of staff expertise around both nutrition and budgeting. Erica has been in food service for 25 years (at The Caring Center for 18!) and acknowledges that she has her cooking and administrative work down to a well-organized system, making the most out of the kitchen space and equipment she has. Having that experience gives her room to experiment and take on new challenges — and opportunities.
Erica has recently started training other child care staff and directors through the Action for Early Learning Alliance in West Philadelphia. She’s sharing how to set up kitchens, where to source quality ingredients, and how to stay CACFP-compliant while offering nutritious, delicious food. Her ultimate goal?
“I want to show that they don’t have to go the way of offering processed foods with lots of additives. We can get better food for our children in the city of Philadelphia.”
The Caring Center is an early childhood education provider for children 6 weeks to 8 years old, nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and rated Keystone STAR 4. The Common Market Mid-Atlantic is a mission-driven distributor of sustainable, local farm foods, connecting institutions and communities with good food from over 200 producers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.