One of the most important goals to consider when encouraging farm to table practices is providing families and children from all communities with equitable access to nutrition, wholesome foods. A project called “Farm to Belly,” led by coordinator Kerry McKenzie, is making great headway in cultivating food equity in the Greenville, South Carolina community, specifically focusing on early care and education (ECE) initiatives. I had the opportunity to speak with Kerry about the success of the Farm to Belly program, her plans for the future, and about addressing food equity in our own communities.
A collaboration of the Greenville Health System, SHARE Head Start, and the advocacy group Feed & Seed, Farm to Belly aims to curb obesity and increase the accessibility and affordability of healthy food in low-income areas. To do so, Farm to Belly brings farmers markets and pre-made recipe bags to four different Head Start child care centers on a rotating basis, serving over 450 children and their families. Children and their caregivers can shop for foods that they are then encouraged to eat, cook, and discuss together.
Farm to Belly is a project of Choosy Kids, a company “devoted to promoting health in young children and their families.” Choosy Kids provides classroom intervention and family engagement materials that can be used in tandem with the farmers markets and recipe bags to further encourage healthy habits. A life-size mascot named Choosy – which stands for for Choose Healthy Options Often, Start Young – visits Head Start centers during Farm to Belly activities, interacting with children and giving a friendly face to healthy foods. Kerry, who co-created of the mascot during her time at West Virginia University, says that Choosy has been a fantastic motivator for children in getting excited about fruits and vegetables and developing healthy eating habits. She emphasizes that it’s most important to establish those habits early in life, and that’s why she’s passionate about building a program specifically for children in the ECE setting.
In order to adequately serve the hundreds of children and families Farm to Belly assists, Kerry continuously works with local South Carolina farmers to provide the produce needed for the markets. She employs individuals with special needs to package the recipe bags, and uses the help of generous volunteers and in-kind services to deliver the recipe bags and produce for farmers markets. Volunteers also help to maintain four established gardens in the area. Kerry continuously strives to make her model sustainable, like a “well-oiled machine.”
Affordability and accessibility can often present barriers when encouraging healthy food consumption in low-income areas, and Farm to Belly aims to encourage healthy habits beyond just in their visits to Head Start Centers. In her efforts to address food inequity on a larger scale, Kerry is actively leading efforts to collect data from Farm to Belly participants - both children and parents - indicating the fruits and vegetables they consume and cook most often. Kerry then presents this data to local convenience stores, encouraging them to carry l the most popular foods (currently vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts). Kerry explains that while it can be difficult to convince these stores to carry perishables that they haven’t historically sold, providing them with solid numbers can present a convincing argument. Kerry started these efforts by working with a Greenville gas station called Spinx, and is planning to work with more convenience stores in the near future.
Moving forward, Kerry plans to focus her efforts in collecting and presenting that data, in order to make buying healthier foods easier for the whole community. She also continues to perfect the Farm to Belly model, and aims to expand first within the Greenville area, then in other cities and states. When asked about how to address food inequity in our own communities across the nation, she said that education for both children and parents is the first place to start; informing individuals about the positive health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables can be a key motivator. Kerry also explained multiple detailed visions she has for communities to address food insecurity in the future, including a “Choosy-mobile” and mobile markets that deliver produce in food deserts.
Kerry is not only running a program that is currently helping hundreds of families, she is also continuously looking to the future. I found that incredibly inspiring. The Farm to Belly program can be a model for communities looking to address food equity; Kerry’s enthusiasm and dedication can be a model to all leaders working to advance and strengthen our food system.