The Child & Family Healing Center, a residential behavioral treatment center, is putting a focus on food. Freshly-prepared food, that is. In partnership with contractor Culinary Services Group (CSG), wholesome, scratch-made meals will be served to the children and teens who live on-site, as well as those who attend the center’s day school.
It’s no secret that good nutrition is essential to support kids’ growth and development. But it can also support their overall wellbeing. “What we’ve found studies have shown is that what you eat has a direct correlation to mental health. Your gut is directly linked to your brain through the brain-gut access. The bacteria in your gut also play a role in your emotions,” explains Chef Manager David Switzer. “Eating a balanced diet then becomes essential to maintaining a healthy gut and brain.”
Run by the national nonprofit United Methodist Family Services, the Child & Family Healing Center is home to 50 residents aged 11 to 17. Another 70 to 100 children attend as part of the center’s day school program. Under the new culinary program, residents will receive breakfast, lunch, and dinner and snacks while day-school attendees will receive breakfast lunch.
Developing a menu that was appropriate for both groups meant that meals needed to meet the USDA’s Nutrition Standards for School Meals. At least half of the grains must be whole grains, down to the breading used in the chicken tenders, Switzer notes. Meals must also offer the required servings of milk, fruit and vegetables, and 3 ½ ounces of protein. Fried foods aren’t allowed.
Though the USDA’s guidelines are strict, Switzer doesn’t find them difficult to follow. “Everything is pretty clearly laid out and there are no big regulatory hoops to jump through,” he says. What’s more, Switzer has opted to stick with the guidelines for the center’s menus across the board – not just breakfast and lunch served to day school students. That eliminates the need to follow different standards for different kids or different meals. “It’s easier to stick with one set of guidelines the whole time,” Switzer says.
When the program launches, meals will be served buffet-style with staff serving residents and students. “We’ll start off with a steam table, almost corporate cafeteria-style,” Switzer says. “We could do a salad station, but not a salad bar, because the food has to be served by a staff member. Doing station work would also be fantastic,” he says.
But the program, in its full iteration with the day school students, is still far off. “Due to the transition of [CSG taking over the center’s] service right now, they actually missed the deadline to participate in the USDA’s school lunch program this year,” Switzer explains. “But our process and guidelines are already in place so we can meet them for next year. I don’t anticipate any challenges.”
For now, residential students come to the center’s campus for lunch Monday through Friday. Grocery carts are sent to the residential cottages with pre-cooked food for breakfast, dinner, and snacks. “As we move into October, we’re hopefully going to move into service with the scratch-made food and having that sent to the cottages,” Switzer says.
Approximately 18 months down the road, the center will complete construction on a new commercial kitchen. “CSG is very involved in the planning of that space. Right now we’re working out of the campus dining hall, which has a full-service kitchen,” Switzer says. “It has some older equipment, but it’s in good working order. We’ve made some improvements to the space based on CSG’s meal service program. It’ll be a functional space for when we start scratch-cooking three times a day.”
With many parts of the new meal service plan not fully executed, Switzer has yet to get feedback from the residents or students about the food changes. Still, he’s confident that they’ll be a welcome improvement. “This will definitely be something better for the kids,” he says. “At the end of the day its all about them anyhow, they’re mental wellbeing, and having a home-cooked meal versus something that’s not, I think it will really help in their recovery.”