Chef Brian Ralph prepares 2,000 healthy meals every school day for children in Utah's Head Start program.

Largely because fast and processed food is often less expensive than fresh, kids from low-income families are more likely to become overweight or obese.

Visitors are advised to stand out of the way.

Two thousand meals get loaded onto the trucks every morning by 9 from Head Start's Northstar Kitchen. It's organized chaos as each driver packs ingredients for three meals in various tubs. Today's menu includes a fresh-baked croissant roll, a banana and milk for breakfast; spinach-stuffed meatloaf, rice pilaf, cauliflower/broccoli medley, an orange and milk for lunch; and a mini pita and a slice of cheese for a snack. The budget? Two dollars per child.

Genial Chef Brian Ralph, director of food services, over sees the action, making sure each driver gets everything he needs, including reusable plates and silverware. Like every chef, he has a vested interest in the quality of his food; but Ralph doesn't get to see the final plated meal. These drivers are also his cooks - each one delivers food to one of 80 Utah schools, does the final preparation and serves it to the kids enrolled in that school's Head Start program.

This is one of only two programs like this in the country, designed to provide children ages birth to 5 with nutritious, well-balanced meals that will not only nourish them now, but - it is hoped - will set some lifetime eating habits.

"It usually takes about three times for the kids to develop a taste for a new dish," Ralph says. "What we don't do is offer another option." Other school dietitians call him for advice and recipes. "They'll say, 'Oh, our kids won't drink plain milk,'" he says. "And I say, that's because tyou offer them chocolate - and strawberry-flavored milk. Change the choice: offer them milk or water."'

"It's all about learning to make the right choices," says Ralph. "Kids aren't really capable of that, so you have to help them along."

Ralph's tuna casserole is made with fresh tuna, not canned. He puts salmon on his menu several times a month. To the objection, "My kid won't eat fish," his response is, "Keep serving it."

Northstar also offers cooking classes for working parents and teen mothers and training for dietitians and staff at other child care and educational centers.

For more information, call Ralph at 801-618-4675.

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