Debra "Grandma Dee" Wade smiles while holding a cup of her famous purple smoothies.
By Melanie Wong, MA, RDN; 10 Cents a Meal Policy Associate
Tucked away in a small neighborhood of Grand Rapids just south of bustling Wealthy Street, you’ll find Baxter Community Center. The organization is deeply rooted in the heart of the Baxter neighborhood and acts as a hub for the needs of this tightly knit community. As the past year has shown us, the need for and importance of child care is pressing; at Baxter Community Center’s Child Development Center (CDC) they are caring for the community’s children and making sure they are fed well. As a participant in the 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids & Farms program, the center receives match grant funds from the Michigan Department of Education for purchasing and serving Michigan-grown fruits, vegetables, and dry beans.
For Baxter Community Center, the importance of serving their children scratch-made and locally grown food existed prior to becoming a 10 Cents a Meal grantee. The organization has long valued the impact of healthy, local food and garden-based education. Over the years, Baxter has invested in a greenhouse and garden space as well as staff to prepare food from scratch for the children attending the center. Affectionately known by the children and staff as Grandma Dee, the food service manager Debra Wade goes above and beyond to cook delicious food made from scratch for the children at the center. The children love her food so much that in one instance a little boy wanted to take her home!
The main garden at Baxter Community Center adjacent to the outdoor play area.
“They eat squash, sweet potatoes, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens, they have it all!” Grandma Dee said; and they really do have it all when she is in the kitchen. She is making everything from homemade pizzas and baked goods to full holiday meals featuring soul food to celebrate African American Heritage month. “We use as much non-frozen things as we can. Summertime brings us lots of fresh things we can use. When we start getting our tomatoes out of the garden I freeze them, I do them just like I do at home.” The tomatoes make their way into meals like homemade soups for the children. Hearing Grandma Dee speak about her cooking, one gets a window into her passion and commitment to providing thoughtfully prepared food.
However, It’s not just the food that Grandma Dee cooks that makes a difference—it’s her heart that makes her a true champion. She genuinely cares about the children and their connection with the food they eat, even going into the classrooms to do show and tell to introduce foods the children may be unfamiliar with. “Anything that I cook that might be different that they might not have seen in their home, the teachers and myself try to make an educational thing about it so they know what it is.” she said.
Through Grandma Dee’s cooking the children are introduced to new foods utilizing Michigan-grown ingredients such as asparagus soup. “I’ll take it in there to them, because I think before they never had the asparagus. I took it into the classroom and let them touch it, look at it you know, tell them different ways it can be eaten… that way it helps so they will embrace it a lot easier,” she shared. While every new food isn’t always immediately embraced she said: “I can’t think of anything much that they didn’t really want to eat or try, because I think they build a trust up as far as what they like so they try it—like that asparagus soup. I didn’t think they were going to like it at all, I didn’t think they were going to try it, but they just started eating it!”
A favorite among the children is Grandma Dee’s purple smoothies. With a cup in hand and a purple mustache the children guzzle these fruit-packed smoothies. The secret ingredient? Frozen Michigan blueberries. Over the years the center has built a relationship with local food distributor Cherry Capital Foods and there is a sense of comfort and ease when sourcing Michigan-grown food because of their partnership. Debra says “They love blueberries, we get those blueberries from Cherry Capital, I put them in their pancakes, in the smoothies.” The children even like to eat them thawed out with nothing on them! Aarie Wade, Director of the CDC and Debra’s daughter, helps her do the online food ordering for the center. “When we first started 10 Cents a Meal Aarie worked with our contact there to find out what qualifies for 10 Cents a Meal. One thing we hadn’t used in the past was dried cherries and cranberries and so we started ordering those too.” said Danielle Guinsler, the center’s Development Director. Staff are encouraged to eat with the children to help model healthy eating habits, and trying and liking Michigan-grown food has spread to the staff too. Even Aarie has started liking blueberries since trying the local Michigan blueberries from Cherry Capital.
“We have been happy with the incentive [10 Cents] to provide more locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables to our Child Development Center students. As a small organization, handling the paperwork aspect has been a challenge.” Danielle said. However, she also shared that breaking up the reporting responsibilities and doing it month by month would make it easier. What is the true value of 10 Cents a Meal? Danielle shared that it “is an important program to support lifelong healthy eating habits for our youngest Michiganders. We know that exposing children to a variety of fruits and vegetables can impact their health for the rest of their lives. Not only does this help future generations, it helps current farmers in Michigan. I hope to see this program expand and impact even more Michigan youth and farmers.”
The experience at Baxter Community Center shows that the impact of Michigan-grown and scratch-made food extends beyond nutrition and supporting family farms. Not only do the kids love Grandma Dee’s food, but they love her. “It’s really encouraging and it really feels so good when they say ‘Grandma you’re the best’.” In one video shared to Baxter Community Center’s Facebook page she can be heard echoing this sentiment saying “it makes me feel good that they say ‘Grandma Dee, we love your food!’ They always tell me, and that’s what I get out of it—put love in it, get love back out.”
You can find more information about 10 Cents a Meal at www.tencentsmichigan.org.