By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN
Farm to Early Care and Education Associate
National Farm to School Network
With abundant harvest at the ready and apple orchard and pumpkin patch field trips a common occurrence, it seems only natural that October is National Farm to School Month. Designated by Congress in 2010, National Farm to School Month is a perfect time to get started with farm to early care and education initiatives in Head Start. Farm to early care and education is a group of activities and strategies that include the use of local foods, gardening opportunities, and food-based learning activities implemented with the goals of promoting health and wellness and enhancing the quality of the educational experience. Farm to early care and education connects young children and their families to healthy, local foods through meals and snacks, taste tests, lessons, cooking activities, gardening, field trips, farmer visits and more. The 2016 National Farm to School Month theme, One Small Step, highlights the simple ways anyone - from early care and education providers, parents and food enthusiasts to food producers and nutrition professionals - can take small steps to advance farm to early care and education in their own communities and across the country.
This October, we’re encouraging everyone to take one small step to connect children with great food.
In Salt Lake City, the team at Utah Community Action Head Start has turned a series of small steps into big changes for children, families, and the community. Each day, chefs deliver scratch made meals packed with whole grains and fresh, local fruits and vegetables to each Head Start site and talk to children about what to expect in the day’s delicious meal. The children have opportunities to spend time in the garden and visit the farms where some of the over 18,000 pounds of local foods used in the program each year are grown. To bring the message home, parents participate in healthy cooking and shopping classes, receive farm to school take home packets, and are invited to regular harvest dinners. These efforts are driving change in children’s habits, as a surprising number of children start to clamor for lima beans and Brussels sprouts, as well as increasing families access to healthier foods.
Photo: Children in Salt Lake Community Action Head Start Programs are eager to dig into made from scratch meals full of local produce, grains, and proteins. Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Community Action.
Norris Square Community Alliance (NSCA) in Philadelphia is taking a similar, comprehensive approach to connecting children and families to high quality, local food. An important first step to developing their “Farm to Table” program was consulting with the community, including parents and Head Start teachers, about what activities would be most valuable to increasing access and consumption of health, local foods in the Head Start program and in the home. Initial changes included transitioning menus to include more culturally relevant meals with fresh ingredients and made from scratch dishes, offering nutrition education in the classroom, and developing a vital partnership with Common Market, a mission-driven regional food distributor. Based on the success of these initial endeavors, NSCA is planning for an expanded pilot program this year, including gardening and cooking classes for children, which strategically integrate math, science, and language arts concepts, and numerous opportunities for parent engagement, including local, family-style meals, workshops and trainings.
Photo: Most of Norris Square Community Alliance’s Head Start sites now include colorful, kid friendly gardens. Photo courtesy of Norris Square Community Alliance.
These programs in Utah and Pennsylvania bring together numerous elements of farm to early care and education, but their successes took time. Utah Community Action Head Start Chief Development Officer, Joni Clark, says, “People think it is too expensive, but if you start small and grow slowly, it can be done.” Nilda Pimentel, NSAC consultant, notes that engaging parents and the community in the planning process takes extra time, but the extra effort empowers families and is vital to long-term success. Two first steps Pimentel recommends are making small changes to the menu and building community connections. This October, we’re encouraging everyone to take one small step to connect children with great food. Join the celebrations by signing the One Small Step Pledge (farmtoschool.org/onesmallstep) and we’ll send you small step suggestion to get informed, get involved, and take action for farm to early care and education during Farm to School Month. Learn more by visiting the National Farm to School Network at farmtoschool.org.
Photo: Chefs at Salt Lake Community Action Head Start Central Kitchen prepare made from scratch meals daily and then deliver them directly to Head Start programs around the region. Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Community Action.
The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and early care and education settings.