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Head Start Central Kitchen Initiative


Dissemination Category: The Salt Lake Community Action Program Head Start Central Kitchen initiative is an emerging intervention based on its use of evidence-based strategies. Developed in practice, the initiative shows promise but evidence in support of effectiveness is not yet available.

Intent of the intervention:  The primary goal of the Salt Lake Community Action Program (SLCAP) Head Start Central Kitchen (a.k.a. the Central Kitchen) is to control the quality of food provided to Head Start children. The full initiative consists of a central kitchen that provides affordable, high-quality meals and snacks that are served in an environment that emphasizes modeling of healthy eating and providing positive reinforcement and education about new foods. The main component, the Central Kitchen, prepares nutritious foods from scratch and then delivers meals to Head Start sites in the community. The initiative provides daily breakfast, lunch, and snack options to children enrolled in participating Head Start and child care centers.

For many children in the Head Start program, the nutrition provided is essential to their health and well-being. For some children, the meals they receive at Head Start are the only meals they’ll receive during a day. In addition, many of the children’s diets are high in fats and sugars, and 29% of the children have been identified as overweight by weight-for-length percentile growth charts.

As part of the initiative, SLCAP adopted its own best practices for healthy eating, requiring meals catered through the Central Kitchen to meet or exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) standards.

The SLCAP’s adopted best practices for healthy eating

  • Fresh fruit and vegetables served with every meal
  • Access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Locally grown and, when possible, organically grown foods
  • Foods low in fat, sugar, and salt
  • Low- and nonfat dairy foods
  • White milk (whole milk for children aged 1–2 years and nonfat milk for children aged 2–5)
  • 100% fruit juice
  • Lean protein choices
  • Cereals low in sugar
  • Whole grain products, including pasta
  • Foods not fried
  • Foods prepared from scratch ingredients; minimal use of pre-packaged foods

During the school year, the Central Kitchen delivers 3,000 healthy, nutritious and appetizing meals daily to the Head Start classrooms, and 1,400 meals a day to summer programs, (dinners are included in the summer program). The kitchen serves children at 24 sites, including private sites.

The Head Start Central Kitchen initiative focuses on the individual/interpersonal level of the socio-ecologic model (children and their teachers and parents), with a secondary focus on the organizational level (preschools).

Intended Population: Preschool children, aged 3-4 years, enrolled in SLCAP Head Start. Due to the Central Kitchen’s success, it serves children in programs other than Head Start, including YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, and University of Utah children’s programs.

Setting(s): Child care; predominantly Head Start programs

Background: In 2008, the SLCAP Head Start director and health manager, disturbed by the poor-quality of meals served to children enrolled in Head Start, started exploring how they could provide high-quality, nutritious meals. They decided the program needed to adopt its own set of best practices for healthy eating.

Further, they sought a vendor who would meet their price requirements and provide delivery of 2,400 hot meals a day. No vendor could be found to meet these criteria. Consequently, they began exploring the concept of finding and operating their own centralized kitchen. They sought input from a broad variety of sources and visited a number of central kitchens, ranging from San Diego, California to the north side of Salt Lake City. After some challenges, they found a kitchen space that needed renovation to bring it up to code. Construction began in 2009.

In spring 2009, while the new Central Kitchen was being renovated, a temporary kitchen was found for the program in a Greek Orthodox Church. During this pilot phase, SLCAP Head Start hired a food services director/chef and other kitchen staff and developed and tested systems for operating the kitchen. The food services director played an important role in developing the building plans for the Central Kitchen.

Length of time in the field: The initiative began in early 2009