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Like most food-service veterans, Agustin Cruz is no stranger to an early start to his workday.

Each day the former restaurant manager and current Kinder Bites owner comes into his new kitchen at the Community Action building at 210 O St. at 4 a.m. and unloads 13 to 15 pallets stacked with fresh food.

Large bags of fruit, stacks of macaroni boxes and even larger bags of whole-grain cereal mixes take up most of the kitchen's 5,000 square feet. He and a small staff then spend the next six hours cooking an amount of food that would make even a Costco worker blush. In total, the Kinder Bites workers will make more than 200,000 nutritious meals this year, and each day thousands of breakfasts, lunches and snacks are delivered in bulk to child care centers, and Head Start and summer meal programs around Lincoln.

The kitchen contains no fryers, and very little of Kinder Bites' meals contain processed food.

"We do everything fresh here," Cruz said. "Most of the food you see here delivered on the average day is going to leave in the morning. It's unbelievable how much food we put out of here every day."

Cruz's operation is a collaboration with the Community Action Healthy Food Access Program. The nonprofit seeks to help impoverished families and people reach economic stability by tackling the causes and conditions that lead to poverty, and their newest program focuses on the nutritional problems that start at the dinner table.

"The ability to access nutritious food has lots of impact on our ability to become economically sufficient," said Vi See, the executive director of Community Action. "If you're healthy and able to do your best, you're going to do better at everything and you're going to feel better."

One part of the Healthy Food Access Program is a new state-of-the-art industrial kitchen, where construction began Dec. 1, 2018, and was completed in late May.

The kitchen houses the Kinder Bites operation and Lone Tree Foods, a company that sources and processes produce from local farmers to help connect them with wholesale buyers in Nebraska and Iowa. 

Lone Tree Foods maintains a network of 40-50 farmers. See said the business allows consumers to have access to fresh, locally grown produce and supports farmers who otherwise may not grow enough product to meet the needs of large, industrial sellers.

"We really realized what we needed was for farmers to come together and sell their product in aggregate," See said.

The new kitchen that houses the two companies was funded by a $971,993 grant from the Community Health Endowment of Lincoln to launch the Healthy Food Access Program, and it's located in a renovated space that was once used for storage. The kitchen cost approximately $750,000, according to Jessie Hedrick, communications and development coordinator for Community Action.

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics recording rising grocery bills, CHE tasked Community Action and a number of other nonprofits to find the single-biggest impact on Lincoln's access to fresh food. 

Early Head Start and Head Start director Jill Bomberger said providing affordable and healthy meals to children attending Head Start programs became the focus for the kitchen because it would allow children to be exposed to healthy food they might otherwise miss out on.

And it can take almost 10 to 15 introductions to new foods before kids younger than 5 years old develop a taste for them, Bomberger said. That's the kind of thing some Lincoln parents have to take into consideration when grocery shopping.

"Families in Head Start don't have a lot of food dollars to spend on food these kids might or might not like," Bomberger said. "They have to fill their kid's tummy and they can't spend money on food their kid isn't going to eat."

As a result, Bomberger said fewer than half the children who go through Head Start eat their daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. She said that leads to disproportionate rates of obesity in lower-income areas.  

"When kids aren't eating fruits and vegetables, it hurts them and makes it hard for them to succeed," Bomberger said.

But with the help of Cruz's Kinder Bites and Lone Tree Farms, See and Bomberger predict healthy eating habits will soon begin to take hold when Head Start children go home at the end of the day. 

And this is only the first step for the program.

"Right now, we're trying to figure out what we can do to make these menus even more nutritious," See said. "The ability for people to have control of their health allows them to have control of their lives."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or eclopton@journalstar.com.

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