The drive behind starting Wholefood Canteen was to make a difference and challenge status quo. Find out what our mission is, why we’re different and discover what we’ve learned since we opened doors 10 months ago.
By Belinda Pooley
I had my first light bulb moment to start Wholefood Canteen in May 2013. At the time, I was working for a global company in a job for that many people would kill to do – yet every day I would wake up with an icky feeling that I wasn’t doing something meaningful with my life. And with each day that passed, the feeling grew and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I was building someone else’s dream and I was ready to build my own.
Wholefood Canteen was born out of a strong desire to make a difference. Among many things, I wanted to offer a service that avoided the use of pesticides, chemicals, additives and processed foods as much as possible and provide a healthier and more sustainable alternative to what I saw being offered in other childcare centres.
It all started at Redbank
Once I had made the decision, I quit my job and things happened very quickly. From the day I resigned to the day we started trading at Head Start Montessori Redbank was only 3 weeks. The pressure was on. Despite long days, a never ending to do list and a 4-hour return commute between the Sunshine Coast (where I live) and Redbank, I felt like I was being carried and supported all the way.
Setting up the Redbank commercial kitchen was a bit like an episode of The Block! We were racing against the clock to give the kitchen a make over (physical and food) so we could start trading on 1 July as a fully licensed commercial kitchen that had my whole food stamp of approval.
Cupboards and shelves were ripped out to make way for a new 6 burner commercial stove and hob; a new pantry cupboard, freezer, prep benches and a commercial dishwasher were given a home and the whole kitchen was given a good ceiling to floor scrub.
We ceased the services of the existing ready-made brought-in meal service (mainly frozen meals that had to be reheated – all with ingredients lists 10 lines + long!)
We removed all white flour, white sugar, iodised salt, vegetable oil, pancake mixes, packaged breakfast cereals, white home brand bread, jam, margarine and replaced these with less refined, whole food ingredient alternatives.
The microwave was tossed – from now on anything requiring reheating would be done on the stovetop or in the oven.
We started trading with a winter menu and both staff and children at Head Start Montessori Redbank eagerly embraced the service. We were all watching and waiting with baited breath to see how the children would respond… and within 2 weeks, most of their bellies gave the new meals a big thumbs up!
Fresh, raw and living fruit or vegetables featured on the menu every day of the week. And surprisingly, some of the children had never eaten or seen some of the fruits and vegetables on offer (for example capsicum, mushroom, celery and pear). I realised then that what was happening in episodes of Jamie’s School dinners where kids couldn’t identify common vegetables was happening right in my back yard…. A ‘lump in the throat’ moment that made me realise there is more work to do in changing our food culture.
After a few hiccups with staff we were blessed to have Angie join the team in August and she’s been at the helm of the Redbank kitchen ever since.
Amongst all of this, we were all super excited to have a gorgeous flock of chickens and ducks join the Redbank family, who have diligently been supplying us with oodles of eggs – and keeping the kids entertained as well!
You can read some of the kiddies and parents feedback about the food here.
Next stop – Samford…
As soon as I felt Redbank had found it’s groove, I turned my attention to the Samford kitchen, inside the Head Start Montessori Centre over there. In August we surveyed the parents to gauge interest in our service. With many questions but great interest, we went to work with a planned start date of early October.
Using the lessons learned from the Redbank launch, the set up of Samford was a lot smoother. The kitchen space itself, while smaller than Redbank, was quickly transformed into an active, delicious smelling hub of activity in the Centre. We started trading on 14 October.
Again, we were challenged with finding the perfect Chef but with patience, the universe delivered us Bronwyn, who officially joined the Samford team in early February.
Samford is also home to three lovely chooks, who are currently taking a break from laying, but we hope they will be back in action soon. We miss their delicious eggs!
Meet our two Chefs Ange and Bronwyn here.
It’s all about the ‘why’
“Through Wholefood Canteen, I’m inspired to change the way that kids in childcare eat; white bread, margarine and jam was never going to cut it!
I also believe that the first few years of a child’s life are the most important time in shaping their food preferences for life. I see so much emphasis placed on the health and wellbeing of school aged kids and I wonder who’s paying attention to the pre- school aged children at a time in their life where their health and food choices are so important.”
Ten months in to this this amazing venture, I’ve witnessed first hand how much of a difference feeding children healthy, fresh, whole foods has on their concentration, energy, mood, emotional wellbeing and social development. Good, nourishing food speaks for itself.
Sometimes when I walk into the rooms at lunchtime and see all of these amazing little children sitting at the tables at meal time, excited about what’s for lunch. Nothing warms my heart more when I overhear a child leaving at the end of the day telling their mum or dad about how delicious their food was. Or when Ange or Bronwyn (the chefs) tell me that ‘lunch was hit today and some kids even had thirds!’
Many of our Teachers and Room Leaders have seen fussy eaters starting to enjoy the new foods and frequently have parents comment in disbelief that ‘their child ate spinach or broccoli! “How did you do it?” they ask!
The Wholefood Canteen difference & How we’re leading the Green Charge
- We make everything fresh and from scratch, on site- nothing frozen, ready made or pre-prepared is bought in and reheated. Because of this, the children have minimal exposure to additives and preservatives.
- We also don’t use a microwave and reheat using our gas oven or stove top.
- We buy goods in bulk where possible to reduce our packaging waste and we use local council to recycle any other packaging from products that we buy in (ie: milk, grains, oils etc).
- At our Samford Centre we have a biodynamic veggie garden and use whatever produce the garden produces in the kitchen; we also have a food composting bin at the Centre.
- Both the Redbank and Samford Centres also home to happy free ranging chooks, who provide a healthy supply of eggs!
- In the kitchen (and throughout both Centres) we use 100% natural and chemical free cleaning and sanitising products from The Natural Cleaner Company.
- Over the course of an average week’s menu, their children will get to eat a minimum of 8 different seasonal fruits, 10 different seasonal vegetables, 4 different plant or animal proteins, an assortment of grains and dairy.
- Many childcare centres serve the ‘frozen and reheat’ lunches and if you’ve read the ingredient label on such products, you’ll wonder how it could even be called food. We make our own stock, baby purees, cakes and muffins – nothing from a packet!
- Our menus work on a 4 week rotation and each season we introduce a new menu which means the children are continually getting exposed to new foods and recipes each season.
- We are members of Nutrition Australia (Australia’s peak community nutrition education body), which means we provide at the very minimum 50% of your child’s daily nutritional requirements while they are in care. We also have our menus assessed to ensure that we are proving the recommended number of serves across all of the 5 food groups each day.
- We are teaching their children how to appreciate and enjoy healthy foods and new foods and flavours. With the introduction of the chickens and biodynamic veggie garden at the Samford Centre, they are also learning where their food comes from and how to harvest it.
- The children are learning the value of communal eating by learning how to set a table and share a seated meal with friends.
I know we’re not yet perfect but I also know I have to be patient and work on one thing at a time! Sometimes when we launch a new menu or recipe, the uptake isn’t great and we have to go back to the kitchen and re-think the ingredients and try again. And on some days we’ll make a lunch that’s a winner at Redbank and a not-so –great at Samford…. It keeps me on my toes!
There’s still so much we plan to do to evolve, grow and expand our offering, but when I look back at what we’ve achieved over these past 10 months, I trust that it will happen when it’s meant too.
We will introduce more organic options as the budget allows, we plan to offer a take home meal service especially for busy, time poor parents and we’re working on launching a herb and veggie garden at Redbank soon.
As parents we are continually faced with so many questions and choices about the life and the health we want to create for our children. I believe that the service provided by Wholefood Canteen is helping to build healthier, more nourished children.