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Serving healthy meals to preschoolers in a 'food desert'

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In an airy, sunshine-filled room on a busy Compton thoroughfare, 15 women gathered on a recent Saturday morning to talk about the toddlers – specifically, what they eat.

Would a Friday salad-bar fly?

“I’d have to bring parents in on the idea,” said Debra Hawkins-Shorts. She runs Little Lambs Child Care center in Compton.

“I’d post a flier advertising the new salad-bar,” offered Deborah Dow, who runs Dow Child Care also in Compton.

A third woman wondered: where would I buy cheap, high quality carrots and tomatoes?

The brainstorm was part of the inaugural training session of a $6.1 million Los Angeles county initiative to improve nutrition and physical activity for preschoolers by training their child care providers.

Funded by the L.A. County Department of Public Health and First 5 LA, the "eat play grow" initiative aims to train 6,000 childcare providers over 4 years.

The theory behind the training is that focusing on what kids eat in elementary school is too late, said Ashley Henderson of the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles.

“Obesity starts much younger, with one in five kids already being overweight or obese by age six,” she said.

RELATED: #KPCCkidsfood: Share your healthy recipes and photos 

Laura Bellows, a Nutrition scientist at Colorado State University, agreed.

“Our eating habits are developed in the first six years of life,” she said. Exposing children to a variety of fruits and vegetables before they hit the school system will make it more likely that they will eat these foods later on.

Kids “who don’t often try new foods have a lower dietary quality,” Bellows said.

The session in Compton on Nov. 2 was led by Adriana Sanchez, a nutrition educator at Crystal Stairs, a child care research and advocacy group.

She said one of the biggest obstacles the child care providers faced putting her training into practice is access to fresh produce.

In March, the USDA designated Compton a food desert, a place where access to healthy and affordable foods is very limited. The city has a 40 percent obesity rate. The city started the Blue Line Farmer’s Market in September, in response to residents’ complaints that they had to drive miles to find quality, affordable produce.

“There’s a lot more fast food chains than gardens and supermarkets where local providers have the opportunity to go and get fresh foods,” Sanchez said.  

Little Lambs’ charges $183 a week for a preschool aged child and $245 a week for infants. But often, when times are tough for families, Hawkins-Shorts will accept less. She sets aside about $300 per week for food shopping for the kids.

Hawkins-Shorts said she tried to shop at her local supermarkets but constantly encountered poor quality and limited supply.

She goes to Sam’s Club each week and buys her apples and broccoli in bulk, along with pasta, chicken and turkey. She said that’s a better deal than even the farmer’s market can offer.

“I don’t have a lot of storage space, so I do a lot of fresh vegetables,” Hawkins-Shorts said. Her brother serves as the cook for the center, which cares for 41 children.

She’s thinking about growing her own carrots and lettuce on her day care’s patio - next to the jungle gym.

Hawkins-Shorts said she really tries to be healthy. A recent lunch consisted of broccoli and spaghetti. She serves up one vegetable and fruit each day.

That’s better than the typical preschool lunch fare of chicken nuggets or pizza, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, head of the L.A. County Department of Health.

“Preschoolers are consuming too many low-quality processed foods that are high in sodium, high in fat and often times high in sugar,” he said.

He said that’s why the new nutrition training program will also provide one-on-one coaching along with the group classes - to help providers find solutions that work within their particular constraints. In addition to serving fresh produce, trainings will underscore the importance of “whole-grain options and lean protein sources,” he said.

During her recent training, Hawkins-Shorts learned she’d been fooled by dried fruit leathers, which she used to give kids as a fun snack in place of fresh fruit. After reading a few labels in class, she figured out the bars have a lot of added sugar.

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” she said. “But after today, I’m really going to be reading the labels because I don’t think its 100% fruit.”

What are your kid's favorite nutritious dishes? Where did you buy the ingredients, and why does he or she love the food so much?

Share your best recipes to help us create the ultimate kids menu. Email your responses to klepore@scpr.org or tweet/Instagram us using the hashtag #KPCCkidsfood.

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