NHA's Nutrition Services program featured in The Point Weekly

April 4, 2011
By Alaina Bird

It’s 5:30 a.m., and Kristine Smith’s 14-member staff has already been in the prep kitchen for an hour. Today’s lunch menu is tricolor rotini with mushroom beef bolognaise sauce, spinach cranberry salad with raspberry vinaigrette, steamed lemon pepper cauliflower and milk. The aroma of freshly ground beef and cooked pasta permeates the air. Everyone works with a sense of urgency and purpose. The trucks leave to distribute meals to children in the Head Start program at 7 a.m. There are 40 sites.

Smith tours the kitchen, checking the progress, greeting everyone she sees. Bags of Cheerios are on the counter. Carts of bananas are in a corner. A staff member slices carrots into small pieces. Kim Martin, the chef, works over a heaping mound of onions.

“I need to get these taken care of by this morning,” Martin says. “Wait, what am I saying? It’s not morning. It’s late. I’ve been here since 3 a.m.”

Martin, who has been a chef for 35 years, is always the first to arrive.

“It’s a responsibility, you know?” he said. “When you’re in my kind of position, you leave when it’s time to leave, and you come in to work when it’s time to come in to work. If I were to abide by the rules, this kitchen wouldn’t run the way it’s supposed to run.”

The central prep kitchen on Hancock Street creates about 7,100 meals for 3,500 preschool-aged children from low-income families around San Diego. Smith became the director of nutrition services at San Diego’s Neighborhood House Association four years ago. And four years ago the association’s nutritional approach, which had been followed since the kitchen opened, was transformed.

When Smith arrived on the scene four years ago, canned and frozen foods were the first products to go. She remembers the canned, processed meatballs with chemicals and other fillers, the frozen fish sticks, the chicken nuggets, the Teddy Grahams. Though everything met USDA nutritional guidelines, the food was not up to Smith’s standards. She knew they could do better.

“I was like, ‘Look. I cannot go on with my life being a dietician and keep this food,’” Smith said.

So she bought an industrial food processor and a blender. She called for a chef to be hired and the staff to be trained. She streamlined production techniques and moved all work to the central kitchen area. Sysco continues to be the primary food vendor, but fish sticks, chicken nuggets and deli meat have been replaced with whole grain bagels, Kashi cereals and fresh pasta. The meatballs are homemade.

Smith used to be a clinical dietician when her husband first received Navy orders to San Diego, but she realized she wanted a role that was more preventive than reactive.

“If you don’t start building these eating behaviors when [children are] young, when they’re three and four years old, then it’s really more difficult when they get older or it might not ever happen,” she said.

Chef Bob Mattox works in the central prep kitchen of San Diego's Neighborhood House Association.
Chef Bob Mattox works in the central prep kitchen of San Diego's Neighborhood House Association. The kitchen creates 7,100 meals for 3,500 preschool-aed children from low-income families around San Diego.

It’s 6 a.m., and Bob Mattox, the cook, is mixing the pasta sauce. As Smith approaches, he smiles, his eyes crinkling up in the corners behind his black glasses.

“Can we try your sauce?”

“Of course. Dig in.”

In the back room, other kitchen staff members prepare the Cambro carts, which insulate the food, for shipment. Next to the carts is “the cage.” This is where the canned food is kept. Beans, mandarin oranges and pineapples are among the few items that now populate the area.

“I’m proud to say the shelves in our cage are mostly empty,” Smith said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that the prevalence of obesity among low-income preschool-aged children in the United States increased from about 12 percent in 1998 to around 15 percent in 2003. In 2008, obesity levels were again measured at around 15 percent. By creating nutrient-dense meals for the Head Start program, Neighborhood House Association strives to reduce obesity among its recipients over the long term. Smith takes this goal upon herself as well.

“The most important thing for me is to be able to serve kids the healthiest meals that we’re able to provide,” Smith said. “I want them to be able to get here the best experience for them nutritionally and emotionally.”

The Karen D. Love Head Start center is snuggled in a residential area close to the central kitchen, right next to Peace Lutheran Church. A garden with sunflowers, herbs, cilantro and lettuce lines either side of the walkway.

It’s 11:30 a.m. As Smith opens the door of a classroom, a sunflower wind chime sings, announcing her presence. A little boy wearing a T-shirt with a choo-choo train chugging across the front grins, revealing his missing front teeth.

“Hi!” he says.

“Hi!” she returns, blowing him a kiss. He does the same.

The children and their teachers sit around small round tables, surrounded by a colorful array of drawings, books and toys. Meals are family-style, and the preschoolers set the table. The pasta and salad made early this morning are mostly gone.

“The kids love the lunches,” said Ge Yang, a teacher at Karen Love, who is also in charge of the gardens that are planted and harvested by the children each year.

Prany Kasem-Hendricks, Karen Love’s site supervisor, said the staff tries to keep parents involved as much as possible. They provide menus to parents, who are encouraged to apply them to their cooking at home. She makes it a point to know all 140 kids’ names as well.

“When I’m having a bad day, and I see a child come up to me and say hi or give me a hug or hold my hand, that’s it. That’s why I’m here,” Kasem-Hendricks said.

Though she must follow Child and Adult Care Food Program meal patterns, Smith’s biggest challenge in fighting obesity and keeping preschoolers well nourished leaves her at the mercy of the mostly three- and four-year-olds — they have to like it to eat it. To make sure she is catering to their tastes as well as their nutritional needs, Smith invites the kids to try new recipes. If they like it, they raise a card with a smiley face on it. If they don’t, up goes the frowning face.

Parents and kitchen staff members are also asked to sample and critique new meals. Smith loves telling stories of parents who call the sites to report that their children want them to cook what they eat at school. With the exception of a few foods, like cauliflower, kids enjoy the menu items, even salmon tacos, spinach salad and hummus.

Smith said she believes obesity trends can be reversed with nutrition education and awareness. According to Smith, if healthy food looks good, it tastes good.

“Having their parents role modeling to them will help them be more successful, because they’re going to have a clear message from all angles, and I just know that is the way to go,” Smith said.

Smith’s next project is to start a Farm to Preschool program, which will allow her to work with local farms and buy their produce. Though she considers her program to be environmentally friendly, replacing Styrofoam plates and plastic utensils is another step that needs to be taken as well.

It’s 12 p.m. Lunch is over at Karen Love, and now it is naptime. Smith turns to leave.

“These kids are so cute. They just melt my heart.”

Before she walks through the doorway, Smith pauses. She blows another kiss to the boy missing his two front teeth. He blows one back.

Click here to open PDF: NHA’s Nutrition Services program featured in The Point Weekly.