One could say there is nothing more important than making sure our children are well fed. Every weekday at 7a.m. four old guys with about 100 years of food preparation experience between them arrive in the basement kitchen of the United Methodist Church downtown and prepare healthy meals for more than 500 kids in our community daycare system.
About 13 years ago Robert Muskie Cates, who heads the Nutrition Services Program of Child Care Services, got tired of spending all his nights, weekends and holidays away from his family cooking for patrons of restaurants up and down Franklin Street including Carolina Coffee Shop, Aurora, Papagayo and Pyewacket, along with Fearrington House a bit further south. So he answered an ad promising a cooking job with no nights or weekends preparing food for daycare centers and pre-schools in the Child Care Services Association. Since then Robert, or Muskie as hes been known since his UNC dorm days in the early 70s, has been turning out high-quality freshly made meals every Monday through Friday morning for lots of small children.
They like it too. Not just his chicken and pasta or mac n cheese but even the broccoli and cauliflower served raw. I watched a room full of 4- and 5-year-olds gobble up the white broccoli, as one of them called cauliflower, having never seen it before.
Food in here is yummy in the tummy, declared little Ava, while I sat on a tiny school chair opposite her as she and her classmates enjoyed this fresh food with no complaints. Very unlike todays typical American meal time. A lot of it depends on the teachers attitudes Robert confided. That enables him to serve such exotica as chicken marinated in yogurt with garam masala, a complex Indian spice mixture.
There was no prompting these children or urging them to eat strange food. They eagerly went for it, alternating between trying to wield little spoons and forks or, more efficiently, using their fingers when the teacher wasnt watching. Some left behind a few green beans, not that I blamed them. Some chugged their milk, served in glasses on request, not forced on them by the carton like my old school lunches.
Roberts crew includes veterans of Franklin Street eateries now, including Jim who had 21 years at Pyewacket and Bob who started with him in 1982 at Papagayo. They are joined by Woody, a retired IBMer and ham radio man with no food background who told me hes found more satisfaction in his eight years cooking for children than his previous professional jobs.
These four form a steady corps of efficient, hard-working cooks. They are not rushed or harried but in constant motion from 7 til about 9:30 each morning when the contract delivery crew shows up. Even those guys are in on the enjoyment of the food, telling me When we arrive, the kids start jumping up and down asking, Food man, food man, what did you bring today?Hard, complex work
Its hard and complex work putting out freshly made food for 550 children.
Make sure my wife knows what hard physical labor this is, Jim told me as he pulled big chicken pieces out of a huge vat of boiling stock before pouring in the whole wheat pasta to cook for that days lunch. They have to meet all required federal nutrition standards and pricing while trying to include locally sourced products and adhering to the Child Care networks 20-year-old list of guidelines calling for at least one fresh fruit to be served daily, whole grains, foods without additives, two non-meat protein dishes a week and restricting fats to healthy ones including olive oil, canola and Smart Balance while keeping out trans fats. Not to mention paying attention to food allergies, gluten-free diets, dairy avoiders and several other dietary challenges, they have to meet daily for all 14 schools they serve.
These things seem second nature now; 20 years ago they were rather unusual. Even today, Robert said, one can meet federal daycare nutritional guidelines for a protein and a vegetable by serving chicken nuggets and tater tots every day. The ill-fated Reagan-era school nutrition standard that proposed declaring ketchup is a vegetable still exists in these other insidious forms.
Emily Braaten, a student in UNC Professor Alice Ammermans nutrition policy class prepared a one-page summary of Child Care Services food policies entitled Where Your Childs Lunch Comes From. Reading it, I found the Nutrition Services Program of Child Care Services way ahead of the curve on issues related to childhood obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, noting that salt and sugar are used sparingly, herbs are used in vegetable preparation instead; orange juice is added to carrots and pineapple to beets to improve palatability, thereby increasing vegetable consumption.
All the soups, sauces, casseroles, salads, salad dressings and breakfast breads are made in-house daily according to Roberts recipes. Hes constantly increasing locally sourced products including pasture-raised ground beef and fresh produce, especially melons and squash abundant in summer. Much of their whole grain bread comes from Pittsboros Bread Shop. They beat some high pricing endemic to buying from small farms through the innovative, local Pennies-on-the-Pound program that gives nonprofits better pricing than they could get in retail settings like farmers markets.
When speaking of Nutrition Services, one subscriber, Wendy Mattucci, owner of Legacy Academy preschool in Winmore, said: Its the best out there. Theyre reliable, high quality and no one in the country offers this. Robert told me that hed fielded calls from Siler City and even Charlotte asking for his services preparing and delivering high-quality, freshly cooked food at a total of $3 for breakfast, lunch and a snack . He related to me that one mother came to pick up her younger child and the older one, already graduated from the program said, I miss pre-school, and I miss Roberts pumpkin soup.