Starfish Family Services, a Wayne County-based behavioral health nonprofit, makes 300,000 meals annually for children in their programs, preparing breakfast, lunch and a snack for 719 kids for most weeks of the year. 

It’s a Herculean task for head chef Shaune Fairley and his two assistants, who cook the meals every morning at headquarters in Inkster for transport to centers around Southeast Michigan. They do so 41 weeks of the year. 

If that's not challenging enough, they work from 60 different menus to accommodate children’s food allergies, and religious or cultural food restrictions.

There were 156 kids with food allergies last year, some so severe that their food must be transported separately. 

"We have 86 (different food) allergies, diabetics, gluten-free, religious beliefs, lactose, citrus, every kid has a different allergy," said Fairley, noting that each specially prepared meal is delivered in its own separate package. 

The food is critically important for some of the region's tiniest residents, said Cynthia Bonk-Foley, food services manager at Starfish.  

The homemade meals are prepared with fresh ingredients for infants, toddlers and preschoolers at 18 Starfish centers across Inkster, Detroit, Plymouth, Livonia and Dearborn Heights.

"We do it because we do believe food powers the mind. You can’t learn anything unless you're fed and happy," Bonk-Foley said, adding that conversations at mealtime are a big part of the learning experience. 

"This gives our children the opportunity to really sit down with their teacher and talk about the food, the color, the shape," she said. "It’s a language enriched experience.

" A lot of our kids don’t know what a cucumber tastes like or looks like. Some children have never seen broccoli.  Children, after two or three times of trying something new, will really latch on to it. They see their friends eating something, and they say I want to try that too."

For Chef Fairley and his assistants, the day starts at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday. They have it down to a science.

"We come in, take care of our food allergies, by the time we hit the floor we’re working," he said. "We plan our meals, sort it out and deliver it to all of our sites. 

"I have one person who works on allergies and religious (food requirements), one that packs, and I do all the cooking. Then we all come together to clean and sanitize the kitchen."

The crew prepares a full breakfast, a full lunch and a snack for each child. 

"We have waffles, pancakes, McMuffins, we have fruit every morning and milk," he said of the breakfasts. "We have cereals — all of 'em are low sugar."

Lunches include mac 'n cheese, chicken a la king, burgers and veggie burgers, tacos, chicken and other kid favorites. 

"We have peas and carrots, all the healthy steamed vegetables, cucumbers in the salads," he added. "For snacks, we have Goldfish crackers, cheese sticks, hummus — and they love yogurt, they love the Teddy Grahams, and they love the Goldfish."

The babies and tots are enrolled in federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start programs, or the state-funded Great Start Reading Readiness program for 4-year-olds, Bonk-Foley said.

It cost an average of $6.43 to feed each child per day, and federal and state funding don't cover the full cost. So the nonprofit's staffers have learned to make dollars stretch and rely on charitable contributions from the community. More than 2,000 volunteers help with their programs across the region. 

"We’re so grateful, but we totally rely on private philanthropy," Bonk-Foley said.  

"We want to be able to not just feed our children — children are also hungry to learn. They want to know what a pineapple tastes like."

Twitter: @kbouffardDN

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