The Greater Twin Cities YMCA serves 800,000 snacks and meals to children each year — and every one of them now includes a fruit or vegetable. To drink? Water or milk.
Juice, fried foods and anything with trans fats and excessive refined sugars are off the menu.
The YMCA, long known for its fitness focus, is turning its attention to food with its new nutrition standards and its Healthy Kids Initiative.
It’s also opening Healthy Living Kitchens in some of its existing locations to teach kids, teens and adults about healthy ways to cook. The newest kitchen will open at the Harold Mezile North Community YMCA Youth & Teen Enrichment Center in north Minneapolis at the end of the month. The other two are in St. Paul and Forest Lake.
“The YMCA as a movement is known for physical activity, and we are really good at physical activity,” said Robin Hedrick, YMCA director of community health. “We also recognize nutrition and nutritious eating is the other half of health.”
Some of the push comes from the Y’s role as a place for young people and provider of after-school and child-care programs.
The number of children and adolescents classified as obese has more than tripled since the 1970s. Now, nearly 20 percent of school-age children suffer from obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Leaders at the Twin Cities Y, which provides care to nearly 60,000 children and teens each year, believe they can beat back this trend one healthy snack, one meal and one cooking lesson at a time.
National stakeholders including the YMCA of the USA, the Healthy Out-of-School Time Initiative and University of Massachusetts Boston developed healthy eating and physical activity standards a few years ago. That was the easy part.
Adopting new healthy eating standards across the Twin Cities YMCA’s 29 locations and 17 camps, after-school and child-care programs was the challenge.
The new rules, which are in some ways more stringent than school lunch guidelines, mean no more chicken nuggets, French fries or other cheap, low-nutrition foods.
The Y’s community health team has spent time educating and training staff and working with vendors.
“Hopefully vendors will keep coming up with more products that meet our criteria,” Hedrick said.
Adults will notice some changes, too.
Vending machines at Y locations feature healthy snacks and beverage options. Catered events and parties must adhere to healthy eating requirements — whole grains, veggies and fruit and minimal added sugar. Doughnuts or pastries at staff meetings? Not anymore. When the Y is paying, it needs to be healthy.
Grants from UnitedHealth Foundation, Target Corp. and the Cargill Foundation have helped fund the Healthy Kids Initiative. “It’s helping people live healthier lives and build a healthier community,” said L.D. Platt, a vice president at UnitedHealth Group, which has invested $2.4 million in the Y’s work over the years.
The Healthy Living Kitchen at the Midway YMCA in St. Paul is in a front corner of the building. It feels homey, with dark wooden cabinets and a large island where children and teens can gather around and help cook.
On a recent afternoon, middle schoolers from Eden Prairie worked with head kitchen staffer Jessica Wittwer to make blueberry-beef burgers, oven sweet potato fries and a kale salad. Participants eat what they make and take home the recipes.
Other times, kids have made turkey lasagna with zucchini noodles and quinoa-crusted chicken tenders.
Wittwer said she aims for comfort food with a twist and coaxes kids to get their hands dirty. “You can be messy in here,” Wittwer said. “If you spill, it doesn’t matter.”
Minnetonka mom Dana Fisher is cheering the changes. She tries to serve her three kids nutritious, low-fat meals and snacks and said it’s great that the Y is reinforcing her healthy-eating mantra. When her 10-year-old son, Jamar, enjoys a new recipe at the Y, he urges his mom to try it at home. Last week, they made a healthy snack mix with whole grain cereal and popcorn.
Fisher said she believes establishing healthy eating habits early will save her kids weight and health struggles later on in life.
“It will be easier because they grew up on it,” Fisher said.