Colorado Springs preschoolers served a healthy start with help from national franchise

June 18, 2014 Updated: June 18, 2014 at 10:58 am
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Blue Skies Exploration Academy preschooler Addyson LaFave, 4, devours a spoonful of blueberry oatmeal provided by new franchise food service WT Cafe Tuesday, June 17, 2014. WT Cafe provides day cares and preschools with healthy options for breakfast, snacks and lunch. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette

Most youngsters at Blue Skies Exploration Academy have never seen the likes of hummus, cauliflower or chicken cordon bleu.

But with a little coaxing, children at the local child care center adopt the attitude of the finicky Mikey in the 1970s Life Cereal commercial; they're willing to try something that's "supposed to be good for you."

Their reaction almost always mimics Mikey's: They like it.

"The kids are generally receptive," says executive director Christina Meyer. "If it's something like hummus, we'll serve it with food we know they'll eat - crackers or pita bread."

The menu choices at Blue Skies also include such kid favorites as pizza, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets and chocolate chip cookies.

The difference from typical school fare - whether it's familiar or new gastronomic territory - is that everything is made from scratch with fresh and natural ingredients. So the chicken nuggets are chicken tender meat, and the mac and cheese has a real cheese sauce that starts with a roux.

"There's no trans fats, no high-fructose corn syrup, no processed ingredients. It has high nutritional value, with whole wheat pasta and breads," Meyer said.

Most importantly, it tastes good, which is why kids will eat something they've never had before, says Mary Sue Powers, owner of WT Cafe in Colorado Springs.

The national franchise focuses on dishing up homemade breakfasts, snacks and lunches for schools.

Powers, a Colorado Springs native, became a Wholesome Tummies franchisee last year, the fourth in Colorado. In April, she opened a commercial kitchen in a former restaurant off North Academy Boulevard as her WT Cafe headquarters. The business now prepares and delivers hundreds of meals daily to several preschools and day care centers in town.

It's not the path Powers thought she'd be taking. The wife of an Air Force pilot, and now commercial airlines pilot, Powers has been a stay-at-home mother of four.

But after she was diagnosed with colon cancer six years ago at age 40, Powers became a stickler for good nutrition.

"Our packaged foods have been so manipulated with preservatives and artificial colors. As our food supply and lifestyles have changed, our allergies, diabetes and ADHD have increased," she said. "If we don't start with healthy nutrition with our kids when they're little, their palettes will go right to the junk."

Plus, good nutrition leads to better performance at school and better behavior at home, she says.

Powers isn't worried about her health - she's now cancer-free - but she has new challenges. Running a startup isn't easy, she says.

"There are very few totally fresh food companies. You have to cook in small batches and stay on top of your inventory."

Powers, who previously worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative and with her husband ran a computer testing center for pilots, hired two experienced chefs to cook. She has done the rest, including getting clients, making deliveries and handling operational aspects.

"It's a lot of hard work, but it's been very rewarding," she said.

Time constraints and cost often dissuade parents from serving nutritional meals, Powers said. Although her company isn't part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service program for low-income students, she keeps her prices competitive, at $3 to $5 per lunch per child. Parents can place meal orders and pay online.

"I don't want to make it unaffordable for schools or parents," she said. "It literally comes down to pennies sometimes."

She has goals of providing other franchise offerings, including farm-to-table presentations and cooking lessons for students, and fundraisers for schools.

"I wanted to do something unique that spoke to me and I was passionate about. I wanted to believe in the product," she said.

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