O n a recent snowy morning, students at one of the Alphabet Academy pre-K and kindergarten private schools were engaging in giggly free play and putting on boots and hats for a romp outside. Nothing out of the ordinary there.
But things got a little unusual come snack- and lunchtime at the early learning center, which shepherds infants through kindergartners on three campuses in Hamden and New Haven. These sometimes-picky age groups weren’t slinging the prepackaged foods we often associate with youngsters, like cheese crackers or brightly colored fruit snacks. Instead, they were happily eating fresh fruits and vegetables—some grown in organic gardens onsite—interesting cheeses, homemade baked goods and locally raised meats.
At Alphabet Academy, becoming a foodie is part of the curriculum. Thursday’s lunch menu, for instance, featured black bean and cheese quesadillas, served with pineapple salsa, sour cream and celery sticks. A tempting menu etched in chalk near the front door indicated that the morning snack was organic yogurt with baked pear crumble.
Other offerings, often local and always prepared fresh, include roasted Brussels sprouts, salmon lasagna, kale chips, butternut squash macaroni and cheese, veggie chili, guacamole and pita chips and apple scones. And there’s no patronizing the mini gourmets; food names aren’t made “kid-friendly.” When the children eat white bean bruschetta, that’s what they call it.
Owner and Director Amy Small says she initiated the food program after hearing from moms and dads who explained that there simply wasn’t time to pack healthy, balanced lunch options. “I wanted to help the parents, and if I was going to help, I wanted to do it right,” she says.
The food program started in a rented kitchen but now gets cooking on academy grounds, located at the North campus on Dixwell Avenue in Hamden in a renovated restaurant they’ve occupied for two years. (On February 23, there’s an open house scheduled from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.) Alphabet’s original campus is located on Benham Street in Hamden, and it recently opened “The Nest” on the Yale Divinity Campus, serving university-affiliated families.
The kitchen is a spacious, high-ceilinged room with shiny pots and pans hanging from a ceiling fixture and coffee brewing for teachers. Large windows separate it from the hallway, giving passing onlookers a view of overflowing bowls of garlic, bananas and clementines and, working steadily at the helm, Kim Langella (pictured left, above), known affectionately as “Chef Kim Kim,” and Christina Mercurio (pictured right), who goes by “Chef Chris.”
The duo, both with professional cooking experience, prepares the food served at all three campuses. Small points out that there are no substitutions on the menu, barring certain situations, of course. Any allergies are noted, and parents of infants initially pick what their children sample once they begin eating real food.
But in general, it’s all about solidarity in adventurous dining. When Small began the program, she had to ensure the parents, as well as the children, were on board.
At first, results were underwhelming, she recalls. “Nobody would eat anything.”
But she and the teachers persevered. They used encouraging language in the classroom—suggesting to children wary of unfamiliar-looking foods, “You’re letting your eyes do the work of your tongue”—and pairing picky eaters with less picky ones.
Like magic, about two months in, everything changed. The school had to throw out a lot of food during those months, says Small, but the experiment eventually proved what many parents know yet find difficult to put into practice: if you consistently serve children healthy, appealing food, they’ll eventually get into it.
It’s been a rewarding venture. “It’s fun to cook for little children,” says Langella. “They trust you.”
Plus, the center has gotten some notable outside attention. Producers of “Fed Up,” a documentary about the obesity epidemic in America that made it to Sundance, interviewed staff at Alphabet Academy about their healthy eating successes; although their segment didn’t make the final cut, the school will be featured on the film’s website.
“We started with our idea and ended up with a food program that is so much better than anything we thought it would be,” says Small. She adds that beyond the health benefits, there’s an important message for the children: “They get a sense that this is made for them because we love them.”
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Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.