Putting data to work
By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate
With abundant information from the National Farm to School Network 2015 National Survey of Early Care and Education Providers and the preK data from the USDA Farm to School Census, we have a better understanding than ever of the current reach of farm to early care and education.
According to the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) survey, 54 percent of respondents are currently engaging in farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) activities, and the USDA census shows that 32 percent of responding school districts participate in these activities with preschool students. This information not only provides a picture of the current status of farm to early care and education, but can be a valuable tool to spread and scale the movement. NFSN’s survey infographic, fact sheet and full report and USDA’s website and data sets can be used to spark programmatic and policy change at multiple levels and engage all stakeholders in understanding the value of local food procurement, gardening and food and farm education.
NFSN survey responses will resonate with early care and education providers – the survey’s respondents – who indicate that two of the top reasons for engaging in farm to ECE activities include improving children’s health and providing experiential learning opportunities. These reasons parallel goals in the early care and education community and underscore the opportunity for farm to ECE to create a high quality environment for young children. The survey also demonstrates the wide array of activities encompassed by farm to ECE, including the top three reported activities: teaching children about local food and how it grows, gardening and using local food in meals and snacks.
State level stakeholders, such as state agencies housing the Child and Adult Care Food Program, those housing early childhood programs and early care and education professional or advocacy organizations, will find appealing the ability to use farm to ECE to meet health and early learning objectives and should note the wide spread interest in growing farm to ECE: in addition to the 54 percent of respondents already engaged, an additional 28 percent plan to start activities in the future. Further, the specific information regarding purchasing practices can help frame and tailor training opportunities. State level stakeholders may be interested to see that farm to ECE activities are being applied in all types of early care and education settings, so regardless of the type of program they work with, these opportunities abound.
Local, state, and federal policy makers are important stakeholders to reach with data. The infographic and fact sheet developed from the NFSN survey are valuable tools to start these conversations as they not only outline the challenges in early childhood, including obesity, food insecurity and poor quality care and education, but also the opportunity to reach a large number of children and families through early care and education settings. The value of farm to ECE in addressing these problems is reflected in the motivations reported by respondents, including improving children’s health, experiential learning and increasing access to fresh, high quality food.
Conveying the potential economic impacts is also important in communicating with policy makers. According to the NFSN survey, reporting respondents spent 27 percent of their food budget on local food and 74 percent of those purchasing locally plan to increase their purchases in the future – a huge potential boon to farmers and producers and local economies. Results also identify barriers to local purchasing, including cost and seasonality of food and unreliable supply. Understanding barriers can spur conversation about policies that may alleviate these issues, including increased funding, offering provider trainings and supporting local food supply chain infrastructure. USDA census data allows you to make your message local. Seeing how your state or school district compares to others in applying farm to school in preschool can be a great motivator to take action and catch up with other states or districts.
To spread and scale farm to early care and education and ensure that more children, families, and communities benefit from these valuable activities, we must reach stakeholders and garner support at every level. Equipped with data, resources and passion, farm to early care and education champions are furthering the movement everyday by advocating for programmatic and policy changes that not only directly support farm to early care and education, but create high quality learning environments and improved community food systems.
For additional resources and ways to get involved by visiting our farm to early care and education and farm to school policy webpages.