Sixteen years ago, my friend, Nancy, brought me to The Day Nursery for the first time. The moment I walked through the front door of the stately tutor designed by Charles E White and built in 1926 to house the early childhood program I knew it was a special place.
I had arrived at lunch time.
Situated at family-style tables the children of The Day Nursery were enjoying a home-made, family-style lunch. Wee-ones, between three-and-five years old, were serving themselves from communal bowls, engaging in polite conversation with friends, and savoring fresh vegetables. The children bussed their own tables before retiring to their classrooms for an afternoon nap.
The whole scene was enchanting.
In that moment I became fiercely committed to supporting the mealtime programs at The Day Nursery and 100% biased toward their wholistic approch to nutrition education. Last week The Day Nursery’s food programming was recognized on a national scale.
To this day, all 72,000 meals and snacks served annually at The Day Nursery are made on-site daily from fresh ingredients, but The Day Nursery (in partnership with the Illinois Farm to School Network) has evolved to take a more wholistic approach early childhood nutrition education. The additions of outdoor vegetable gardens, indoor hydroponic gardens, and monthly nutrition education programs complement the existing in-house meal program. The Day Nursery’s multipronged approach to their nutrition programming recently garnered national attention through the Child and Adult Care Food Program’s (CACFP) 33rd annual Child Nutrition Conference.
CACFP is a federal program housed under the USDA and managed in Illinois through the State Board of Education. The Day Nursery is a voluntary sponsor and participant in CACFP; the program reimburses qualifying programs for meals and snacks served as part of a formal nutrition program based on population/income in a fashion like the free-paid-reduced lunch programs utilized in public schools. The national conference brought more than 1000 participants to Chicago last week and the Day Nursery was featured as a “Learning Excursion” destination for conference goers hailing from Florida to Alaska and every state in between.
I had to stop by to see what The Day Nursery had planned for this special day.
On April 22nd, just as Day Nursery lead cook Beatrice Maldonado finished serving a turkey meatball lunch to 77 eager eaters, a chartered bus pulled up in front of 1139 Randolph Street. Thirty guests gathered in the kitchen to hear Maldonado discuss her view that food and nutrition should part of foundational learning for young children. She chatted casually about the trial-and-error approach to feeding children at The Day Nursery and expressed the importance of using fresh, locally-sourced ingredients in the kitchen.
“It took a while to get there,” says Maldonado proudly, “but spinach pizza has become big favorite around here!”
Golden Apple Award winning teacher and Oak Park resident, Sandy Noel, was on site for the visit and took the CACFP conference goers through a hands-on nutrition exercise she uses as part of her monthly nutrition education sessions at The Day Nursery. Noel markets vegetables to children by nourishing the naturalist intelligence, linking the importance of health and nutrition at an early age and includes emotional, musical, and physical components in all her teachings. She also took conference-goers through a tasting using a “veggie train” crafted from bell peppers.
“Don’t yuck my yum;” says Noel to the group gathered in the dining room, “That is the number one rule I give to the children when they are tasting new foods.”
CACFP conference attendees also spent time working with the children to plant vegetable seedlings. The vegetable gardens, located on the playground, were built thanks to a partnership with Root Riot, a private legacy gift honoring Snow Timms, and expanded thanks to a Kaboom grant. The beds are actively managed by the early childhood students attending The Day Nursery and supervised by staff and a volunteer committee. Each classroom has its own garden plot and the preschoolers determine what they will plant each season. Harvested produce is incorporated into daily meals and served to the children attending The Day Nursery.
The CACFP learning excursion to The Day Nursery was repeated on Friday and those who could not attend were exposed to a full-conference presentation given by Day Nursery program director, Vicki Gregor.
“This has been a labor of love and we didn’t get her overnight,” says Day Nursery Executive Director, Cari Christoff, “but now, thanks to these programs and Illinois Farm to School Network, we have three year-old children talking about antioxidants and heart healthy fruits and vegetables.”
The Day Nursery is nourshing children in many ways. For 105 years they have been nurturing young minds and last week The Day Nursery became an aspirational model for food and nutrion programs accross the country. Now thats some delicious news!