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Mel Gravely

Back to Basics: Nutrition in Head Start

In Columbus, Ohio, where The Gravely Group is located, the city council voted last week to remove the city-wide mask mandate. Columbus Public School District, Ohio’s largest, did the same, removing any mask requirements for both children and staff.

Experts are stating publicly that this might be the beginning of the end of the pandemic, and the start of the endemic phase of Covid. That means it will always be around as a viral infection, much like the flu, but will be far less deadly.

Honestly, it feels weird. I went to the grocery store this week and I would guess about 30% of people are still masking, with many still unsure about getting too close to other shoppers in the aisles. After a turbulent January, with record levels of infections and so many more lives lost, it feels strange that we might finally be “getting back to normal” just two short months later.

Overall, I would say I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high, as I’ve been disappointed before. But as the weather gets warmer, I look forward to using the summer to help my clients plan for the 2022-2023 school year. Who would have thought that the simple privilege of being able set goals and make plans to meet those goals would feel like such a luxury?

So in an effort to help myself and others feel a little bit more “back to normal,” I thought I could write a few blogs about something other than Covid and its effects on early childhood education. Over the next few months, we’re going to get back to the basics of Head Start, and talk about some of the simple, yet profound, principles on which it was founded.

We’ll start with one of the most basic. Nutrition. Nutrition has been one of the core services of Head Start from the very beginning. Without nutritious meals filling their bellies, children would be incapable of learning, period. It’s how they start every day. Before any songs, books, or games, children need to receive a nutritious meal.

1302.44 is the section in the Head Start Performance Standards that talks about the nutrition requirements of Head Start programs. It begins by stating that programs must “design and implement nutrition services that are culturally and developmentally appropriate, meet the nutritional needs of and accommodate the feeding requirements of each child, including children with special dietary needs and children with disabilities.”

The section itself is rather short, giving a 30,000 foot view of the what and the how of feeding children during the school day, such as how many meals to provide and the overall guidelines they have to meet. When it comes to food, however, there’s so much more to it. Food is not only critically important to health and well-being, but is also one of the core tenets of culture and an individual’s sense of self. What people eat, how they eat, and even when they eat, is something everyone experiences differently from their first days of life. So of course it’s going to have a big impact on how children learn, develop, and grow.

Let’s Talk Nourishment

Let’s Talk Nourishment” was an Office of Head Start podcast that aired several years ago and is available on ECKLC. This short 10-minute video is a quick introduction to how providing food in the preschool setting is a key learning opportunity for young children. Providing food, it says, when carried out in a developmentally and culturally appropriate way, is more aptly referred to as “nourishment.”

“There is a difference between nutrition and nourishment,” reads the podcast’s description. “Discover how to individualize care to meet children’s needs for nourishment in ways that respect family and community foodways.”

Family Engagement

As we mentioned above, food is one of the largest components of cultural heritage, from a family’s large group identity such as ethnicity, to the micro-identity of an immediate family. That’s why we need to make sure that, while we’re teaching families about principles such as “responsive feeding,” we’re also knowledgeable about and responsive to a family’s cultural practices.

Secondly, sometimes the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach. That’s just the truth. When inviting families to tour your center or encouraging parents to join policy council, remember that food can be a powerful motivator to get families to both show up and stick around.

Nutrition Assistance

Head Start often serves as the primary gateway that helps families navigate the often complex web of public and private assistance programs. As part of your overall nutrition strategy, it is important to make sure that are constantly fostering collaboration with your nutrition-based community partners, such as your local WIC office, food pantries, and even community gardens.

March is National Nutrition Month

While feeding children and educating them about nutrition is a daily activity, March is a great time to spotlight it with special programming. For example, allow kids to get involved and help them to develop positive habits about selecting fresh, wholesome foods, preparing the foods, cleaning the surrounding areas, and so on. When you involve your children at an early age they are far more likely to develop healthy habits and take their own personal nutrition more seriously as they age.

Additional Resources

There is wealth of information available on ECKLC and through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on implementing good nutrition practices in your Head Start program. Below are a few of those resources.

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