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New Resource! Lessons from COVID-19: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to ECE Implementation in States and Communities

NFSN Staff Friday, July 23, 2021
By National Farm to School Network and The Policy Equity Group, LLC

The Policy Equity Group and the National Farm to School Network, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are pleased to jointly release Lessons from the COVID-19 Experience: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation in States and Communities. This brief captures how farm to early care and education (ECE) efforts at the state and community levels were initially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Informed by the experiences of food and early childhood partner organizations in five states – Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – the brief documents the systemic impacts of COVID-19 and the federal response from a farm to ECE perspective; describes how farm to ECE partner organizations adapted to the new context during the initial months of the pandemic; and provides recommendations for how states and communities can sustain the successful strategies implemented during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic had profound impacts across food and ECE systems that exacerbated inequities and racial injustices in food, health, and education. This system shock prompted and accelerated emerging education and food access trends, including increased demand for virtual learning and outdoor learning opportunities, like gardening for children and families. The shift to virtual platforms was echoed in demands for online training and professional development for ECE providers and in the food system, where everyone from agricultural producers to consumers moved to online marketplaces. Policy responses included increased flexibility in policy and regulation and increased investments in ECE and food systems through federal stimulus.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis and these emerging themes, farm to ECE stakeholders turned to innovative approaches to navigate challenges and meet the needs of children and families. Existing partnerships across food and ECE systems became vital, and many farm to ECE stakeholders deepened their engagement with emergency food organizations. These partnerships paved the way for farm to ECE initiatives, like family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, that supported immediate family needs and maintained a market for local producers. Partner organizations met the needs of families, providers, and producers by facilitating online learning, professional development, and facilitating the transition to online food sales and purchase. Farm to ECE stakeholders creatively layered funding coming from multiple sources to support these ongoing efforts.

As many states and ECE sites continue to stabilize and recover, sustaining these innovations could be beneficial in the short and long term. Maintaining relationships across food, early care, and emergency food assistance stakeholders builds community resilience and can increase access to local foods for all families. Continued opportunities for virtual training and building infrastructure for online marketplaces opens the accessibility of education and local foods to more ECE providers and families. Importantly, the flexibility offered in child nutrition programs should be extended or built into a more permanent policy approach to continue increased access to meals and reduced paperwork burden for providers. The figure below provides a snapshot of lessons captured in the brief. These lessons are vital to informing advocacy in child nutrition policy and upcoming stimulus opportunities. For opportunities to put this information into action, learn more about NFSN policy priorities for Child Nutrition Reauthorization here and read about opportunities to leverage stimulus funding, here: Creative Opportunities for Strengthening Farm to ECE through Emerging Federal Funding Streams.

Read the full brief to learn more about these themes of innovation that emerged during COVID-19 and the policy and practice recommendations we can garner from the experience to build more equitable and more resilient ECE and food systems into the future.

Creative Opportunities For Strengthening Farm to ECE Through Emerging Federal Funding Streams

NFSN Staff Tuesday, June 22, 2021
By Sophia Riemer, Programs Intern

The latest round of federal stimulus funding - the American Rescue Plan (ARP) - will be infusing billions of dollars through the early care and education sector and food and agriculture systems in the coming months. While severely devastated by the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent economic crisis, both of these sectors are ripe with opportunity to build back with greater equity and resiliency. Farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) can be a component of building back better. States will soon be making decisions about how this funding will be used and now is the time to provide information to and build relationships with decision makers to convey the needs and desires of your community, influence equitable use of funds, and elevate opportunities for farm to ECE. The following information summarizes content shared on the May webinar (recording available here) through a partnership with the Policy Equity Group, the Food Research and Action Center, and the National Farm to School Network. These emerging funding streams and the immediate opportunities are also highlighted in this infographic.

Early Care and Education
There are two key funding streams in early care and education to note, the Child Care & Development Block Grant (CCDBG), also known as the Child Care Subsidy Program, and Head Start & Early Head Start (HS/EHS). CCDBG provides federal funding to states, territories, and tribes to be used for financial assistance to help eligible families to afford and access childcare. States are required to use a portion of funds to improve program quality or supply and quality of infant and toddler care, as well as provide professional development to providers. HS/EHS provides federal funding directly to local programs through a competitive grant process, with a focus on early learning and development, health and nutrition, and family engagement.

The ARP has created a huge opportunity via ample funding for early care and education. In addition, the funding is flexible and is meant for stabilization efforts, meaning it must be disseminated quickly.

Child Care Stabilization Funding ($24 Billion) and Child Care Assistance Funding ($15 Billion) 
Child care stabilization funding, made available by the ARP, will go to both centers and family child care providers with the purpose of supporting ongoing operations and promoting stability. Funding can be used for a range of pandemic related needs such as operating expenses, personnel costs, rent, facility improvements, etc. States must obligate funds by Sept 30, 2022 and make payments by Sept 30 2023. Child Care Assistance Funding is flexible and will flow through CCDBG. Funds can be used to support quality, training and professional development, or infant care. States must obligate funds by Sept 30, 2022 and make payments by Sept 30, 2024. 

There are multiple uses for stabilization funds that align with farm to ECE. Namely rent, including facilities maintenance and improvements through minor renovations (major renovations are not allowable), goods and services necessary to maintain or resume childcare including anything that will be necessary to a childcare program, and mental health supports for children and employees. For example, facility maintenance and improvements can mean better kitchen and food storage equipment and mental health support can mean investing in gardens and green spaces due to farm to ECE’s social emotional benefits. Additionally, it is encouraged to treat goods and services as a broad term to meet grantees’ needs, specifically shared services, food services, and other learning and eating specific activities. 

When considering these funds, make sure to: 
  • Learn about your state’s process for distributing CARES Act stimulus funding and check for ways to improve upon equitable design and distribution of funds. 
  • Collaborate with partners on strategy development. Staying informed on what advocates in your state are already doing can help in this process. 
  • Serve as an information resource for providers on allowable funding uses that align with farm to ECE goals. 
  • Provide input on your state’s 2022-2024 child care plan, which outlines how childcare dollars will be spent, as this is an opportunity to institutionalize farm to ECE in the state childcare plan by showcasing coordination and partnerships. 

Head Start and Early Head Start ($1 Billion) 
Head Start also received additional funding through the ARP, translating to $400 more per Early Head Start child and $300 more per Head Start child. There is a great amount of flexibility with this funding, with goals to reach more families, prepare facilities for in-person services, and support Head Start employees. Community needs are a determining factor in the application and budgeting process so it is important to be informed on the perspectives of families and providers. 

Opportunities for alignment with farm to ECE include purchase of kitchen equipment and supplies to support in-person meal service, enhancement of outdoor learning spaces, professional development on farm to ECE related topics, and other locally determined actions necessary to resume full in-person operations, which allows a case for farm to ECE by providing evidence of impact.

Make sure to locate your local HS/EHS grantees and your Head Start Collaboration office and begin to build relationships. Engage HS/EHS program directors and advocate for farm to ECE’s alignment with Head Start Program Performance Standards and the Early Learning Outcomes Framework via training, materials, and expertise. National Farm to School Network’s Growing Head Start Success with Farm to Early Care and Education highlights how farm to ECE elements can address these domains and standards. 

Food and Agriculture
There are also opportunities specific to food and agriculture that can be utilized for farm to ECE, namely the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) and the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). These two programs are paired together as part of the local agricultural markets program that was created by the 2018 Farm Bill and have received additional funding through the ARP. 

Local Food Promotion Program and the Farmer’s Market Promotion Program ($47 Million)
Both the LFPP and the FMPP can provide funding for organizations and programs that are looking to build their capacity to source locally and support the local food system. The FMPP provides support for projects like farmers markets, direct to consumer opportunities, and direct producer to institutional marketing. The LFPP funds projects that expand the capacity of regional food business enterprises that engage intermediaries for local products, such as food hubs. Due to relief funding, there is $47 million extra available on top of normal annual funding. These funds do not have to be used for COVID specific projects, leading to a high degree of flexibility for allowable projects.The additional funding most benefits early phase projects and organizations that purchase on a smaller scale as there is a reduced cost share of the normal 25% down to 10%. However, if organizations want to apply for a larger tranche of funding, they can still do so with a 25% match. The deadline for grant applications is June 21st.  

Specialty Crop Block Grant ($100 Million) 
Specialty Crop Block Grant opportunities are administered directly to the state. These grants are able to fund development, promotion, infrastructure, and capacity for speciality production, research, and marketing in states. Normally, this funding cannot benefit individual businesses, producers, and organizations. However, this year there is significantly more flexibility in allowable projects than normal. Apply through your state by the June 11th deadline. 

Health and Nutrition Programs
There are two funding opportunities within the federal food programs, one in the Child and  Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and one in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). 

CACFP ($42 Billion)
CACFP is a program that provides reimbursements to early learning program providers for nutritious meals and snacks to enrolled children. CACFP operators can procure local food directly from producers through avenues such as food hubs, farmers markets, and CSA models. Funds can be used for gardening items such as seeds, fertilizer, watering cans, rakes, etc. as long as the produce that is grown in the garden is part of reimbursable CACFP meals and snacks. State administrative funding can also be used to provide technical assistance and coordination of farm to ECE activities. 

The USDA has issued a waiver that extends higher Tier 1 meal reimbursement rates to all family childcare homes. To be eligible for the higher reimbursement rate prior to the waiver, a program had to be in a neighborhood with 50% or more low income or free and reduced price meal enrollment at the neighborhood school. This eligibility waiver will lead to a significant increase in reimbursement, translating to an extra $53 per child per month, assuming breakfast, lunch, and snack are served in the program. This extra reimbursement can support efforts to improve quality food in early learning programs through farm to ECE.  

Enhanced WIC Produce Benefits ($490 Million) 
WIC is a federal nutrition program that provides low income nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, infants, and children with vouchers for food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support and health care referrals. There will be a four month fruit and vegetable benefit increase starting in June 2021. Benefits will rise from $9 a month for children and $11 a month for women to $35 a month for each woman and child. Benefits can be used at all WIC approved vendors, including farmer’s markets and roadside stands in some states. This benefit increase introduces opportunities for action as it may incentivize those who did not use their benefits at the farmer’s market previously because of time, cost, or other barriers.

To take advantage of this opportunity, learn more about the benefit increase and advocate to your state WIC agency to create and disseminate an outreach plan to increase WIC enrollment and perform outreach to early learning programs, parents, farmers markets and roadside stands. 

Advocacy Opportunities 
There are additional advocacy opportunities available with the ARP due to the funding’s allocation flexibility and broad goals which are highly applicable to stakeholders in the early care community. Upcoming opportunities include the ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, which presents $350 billion for local, territorial, and Tribal governments. Specific goals for the funding include assistance to households, small businesses, or nonprofits; premium pay for essential workers; and mitigation of pandemic-related budget shortfalls. Much will be left up to state and local governments on how to use these funds. There is also the State and Small Business Credit Initiative, which provides $1.5 billion to states to support businesses owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged people”, $1 billion for an incentive program to boost funding tranches for states that show robust support for such businesses, and $500 million to support very small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. 

There is opportunity for influence and advocacy as decisions are made around the funding by identifying goals that can support the childcare sector. Specifically, because this funding can address budgetary shortfalls, look for items that have been cut in budget cycles this year or last year due to the pandemic. There is also a large focus on how these funds can stimulate the economy, which aligns well with messaging around jobs and business ownership in the early care sector. Make sure to leverage existing relationships and the multiple avenues for advocacy outside of the nutrition space, communicating through state departments focused on small business and economic development. 


Innovations in Farm to ECE: Growing the Next Generation of Providers

NFSN Staff Monday, April 19, 2021

Photo Credit: ASAP Growing Minds / WCCA King Creek
By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

North Carolina's Growing Minds Farm to School Program – a project of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) – has dedicated themselves to an upstream approach to expanding farm to ECE through Growing Minds @ Community Colleges, an effort to embed farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) curriculum into soon-to-be early care providers’ education and coursework in community colleges across the state. Growing Minds provides an abundance of resources to instructors looking to incorporate farm to ECE programming into their coursework, including presentations, workshops, and a comprehensive toolkit. Gwen Hill, Growing Minds’ Program Coordinator, explained the reasoning behind the approach. “We are very focused on training the trainers because we know there will never be enough nonprofits to put a garden educator into every school. We need to educate people who are already working in preschools about the basics of farm to ECE so they can be the trainers.” This approach is not new to Growing Minds, as seen through their Growing Minds @ University program that has been running since 2011, where farm to school curriculum is built into college coursework for dietetic interns and education students.

So far, Growing Minds @ Community Colleges has been a success. The program was first piloted with Blue Ridge Community College and truly launched in 2019 in 22 of the 58 colleges in the state.Through this program they’ve been able to deepen existing relationships while building many new ones, in part due to the excitement surrounding the program. One organization, Ashe County Partnership for Children, was so excited about the mission of Growing Minds @ Community College that they reached out to Growing Minds and offered to implement the farm to ECE trainings both at their organization and at their local college, after the college explained that they didn’t have the time to implement it themselves.

Beyond its own programming, Growing Minds also co-facilitates the North Carolina Farm to Preschool Network, partnering with a coalition of organizations to promote farm to ECE statewide. “As we continue to grow the North Carolina Farm to ECE Network, we’ll continue to look for ways we can build those symbiotic relationships and tie the work we’re doing with the network with the community colleges that are imbedding this coursework,” explained Hill. Growing Minds @ Community College is also hoping to go more in depth with the community colleges they are currently working with through monthly newsletters, development of more lesson plans and resources, and providing mini-grants to students in the program who are already working in early learning programs to implement farm to ECE and provide feedback.

Even with their early success, Growing Minds @ Community College hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. COVID presented the largest challenge to the blossoming program. Early care priorities shifted with the transition to virtual learning, leading to some slowed growth. Under normal circumstances, Growing Minds would be focusing on hands-on training, taking students through activities the children in their care would be doing such as crafts, taste tests and cooking demonstrations in order to get soon to-be providers excited. However, they are not letting these challenges stop them. Hill explained how they’ve been able to stay flexible. “We’ve found some creative ways to still connect with programs and progress.” They’ve converted their trainings to virtual platforms and have tried to increase communication, sending frequent email updates and doing virtual trainings over zoom. Understanding that early learning programs can be under-resourced in general, and even more so during COVID, Growing Minds @ Community College makes a point to always look for ways to make their trainings simple and user friendly while offering as much support as they can. They also emphasize how farm to ECE can be embedded into what providers are already doing. Hill explained, “this doesn’t have to be super fancy to be effective. You can get a sweet potato for a dollar, roast it up, do a taste test and then watch a ‘meet your farmer’ video. That’s all that’s needed to get kids excited about trying new vegetables and about farming.”

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Colorado's CACFP Matchmaking Survey

NFSN Staff Friday, March 19, 2021
By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

March 14-20, 2021 is National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part three of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series. Read Part 1: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program here and Part 2: Arizona's CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge here.

Colorado’s Addressing Knowledge Gaps with Educational Materials & a Matchmaking Survey
Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), along with state and local partners, have made efforts to address the knowledge related barriers to implementing farm to ECE. In 2016, using funding from a Team Nutrition Grant, Cooking Up Healthy Options with Plants (CHOP), they were able to develop full day culinary training across the state. However “not everyone could take the eight hours to attend and we couldn’t take the training everywhere we wanted to because of our travel budget limitations”, explained Brittany Martens, Nutrition Consultant and Farm to ECE Coordinator at CDPHE.

In partnership with Nourish Colorado, CDPHE developed Quick Bites, eight online videos covering food safety that take less than an hour to complete and are available in both Spanish and English. The intent was to use these online videos to draw in an audience for hands-on knife skills classes, however, due to COVID-19 the knife skills class was moved online. Special attention was paid to reducing barriers to online participation; the class was paired with technical assistance for those not used to virtual classrooms and two weeks before the class attendees were sent a box with a gift card to purchase materials, notes and handouts.

Martens explained the importance of the culinary training CDPHE has been able to offer, noting the high turnover of staff in CACFP centers. “We saw a need...we want centers to buy and use local produce, but if they don’t know how to use this produce they won’t buy it.” The training not only focuses on technical skills, but emphasizes empowerment, asking attendees to reflect on why they chose their career and the influence they have over a child’s lifetime habits. “That empowerment piece allows us to build those brings the group together” Martens explained. She believes this, along with their wonderful chef instructor, are the reasons they’ve seen many repeat attendees. Empowerment, knowledge and skills can be a strong combination, and Colorado has seen the benefit. There has been an increase in fresh produce on menus since the implementation of the culinary classes and attendees are retaining the knowledge six months after the training.

Colorado is focusing its efforts on other common barriers to local food procurement as well. They have found the largest barriers to be cost, knowledge around how to find a farmer and storage space. CDPHE has addressed cost through a MiniCoIIn grant awarded by ASPHN, providing local produce to providers in the San Luis Valley. In 2020, they received their second MiniCoIIn grant, allowing them to send CSA boxes to home providers and families during quarantine.

They were able to address the barrier of finding farmers by creating a CACFP matching survey. Due to COVID-19, many farmers have lost their market, highlighting an opportunity to help both farmers and providers. Surveys for both providers and farmers were created and are online for any provider or farmer in the state. The survey gathers information on the needs and abilities of each party, allowing Martens to connect providers to appropriate farmers. According to Martens, this matchmaking process has succeeded in building relationships. “Farmers are planting entire rows this season for providers they were matched with because they know the center will purchase their produce.” When asked what advice she would give to other states looking to implement similar work, she highlighted the importance of community buy-in. “Working from the provider perspective and understanding their experience, what they know and see and where there is potential, is really important.”

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Arizona's CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge

NFSN Staff Wednesday, March 17, 2021
By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

March 14-20, 2021 is National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part three of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series. Read Part 1: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program here.

Arizona’s Building Awareness & Efficacy with a CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge
Arizona’s Department of Education has found a way to build excitement, awareness and recognition around farm to ECE while honoring CACFP providers through a CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge that takes place during CACFP week. To finish the challenge, early care providers have to complete three tasks: serve at least one locally sourced CACFP meal component, host at least one activity that educates students where food comes from and share at least one social media post about the challenge.

Ashley Schimke, Farm to School Program Specialist at the Department of Education, Health and Nutrition Services, explained how the winners of the challenge receive a trophy. “Any state recognition carries weight for centers”, Schimke explained. There are other benefits to participating in the challenge as well, such as providing the opportunity for staff to do something fun and different.

In fact, the department decided to keep the challenge running through COVID-19 to deliver joy during difficult times for providers, meal service operators and children. The challenge has also helped to gain buy-in from the Department of Education staff themselves. “The challenge excited staff. They agreed it was an easy way to explain farm to ECE to partners”, said Schimke. The aim of the challenge is to inspire CACFP participants who want to start doing farm to ECE in a tangible, structured way. “The structure of the challenge provides a recipe for someone that doesn’t know where to start but gives them flexibility to do what makes sense for them”.

Schimke has received feedback from providers that local procurement is the most difficult component of farm to ECE, so the challenge focuses on small steps to provide easy wins for centers. Providers are asked to complete one instance of each action necessary to complete the challenge instead of the “3,2,1” model used in the other challenges the department hosts. They also created tiers for the procurement action. Those who have never procured locally can use local milk (which is often local by nature), those with some experience look for local swaps of produce that is already being purchased regularly, and those with extensive experience look for local foods such as meats, beans or grains they would like to purchase and find a locally sourced option. This way, those who come back every year can continue to challenge themselves to do more than the year they did previously.

Schimke hopes that they can continue this work and have centers who participate every year, making the challenge a normal part of their annual schedule. Schimke explained, “The access points [to source locally] are there, but it doesn’t happen without demand. By having an annual way to touch base, providers learn it’s possible to buy local- that it’s not as complicated as it seems.” She advised other states that want to implement a similar challenge to connect with National Farm to School Network partners for resources, but to make the challenge their own. “Take a look at your state’s goals and what your providers need.”

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program

NFSN Staff Monday, March 15, 2021
By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is often described as the equivalent of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in ECE settings. Like the NSLP, CACFP is a federal reimbursement for meals and snacks available to child care centers. There is great opportunity to build partnerships between farm to ECE and CACFP, as engaging in farm to ECE not only aligns well with the CACFP meal pattern, but can help centers fulfill CACFP standards through gardening experiences and emphasizing nutritious, local and garden grown foods. This week, starting on Sunday March 14th, is National CACFP Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part one of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series.

How Iowa is Addressing Financial Barriers with a CACFP Incentive Pilot Program

Partners within the Iowa Farm to School and Early Care Coalition have been focusing on alleviating the financial barriers of local procurement for CACFP providers through a CACFP incentive pilot program. The pilot, Local Food Makes Cents: For Iowa Kids and Farmers, is funded through a Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation Grant (FIG) awarded from the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists (ASPHN) and offers over $40,000 to eligible centers and home providers participating in CACFP to purchase local foods.

Chelsea Krist, Iowa’s Farm to School Program Coordinator and co-lead on the FIG grant, shared the momentum building in Iowa’s early childhood education programs around local procurement. “There is interest, but the financial barrier can prohibit providers from purchasing local foods often or at all, so this pilot alleviates the risk of trying a new partnership and processing new foods so that financial risk isn’t directly on the provider.”

The coalition is not only piloting a mini grant program, but a new application process as well, prioritizing children enrolled in childcare assistance and sites serving higher numbers of children of color for the first time, a framework they plan to apply to other grants they are leading. “ECE contains the most diverse demographic in Iowa, so we need to be prioritizing that as we keep grants going”, said Krist.

The response to the grant was huge, with many more sites interested than they expected. The coalition was able to grant 120 providers with funding, representing a range of site types and sizes. Grantees are required to spend half of their award on fruits and vegetables and will be purchasing solely from farms, food hubs and farmers markets. The coalition hopes the grant will help build long lasting relationships between farmers and early care providers, with continued outreach and support to keep local food at these sites.

Through conversations with grantees, the coalition has found opportunities to address other barriers providers face and are now looking to allow CACFP or other state funding to be used for gardening tools and reimbursement for plants grown in the centers’ garden. Overall, Krist is looking forward to the opportunities this pilot can build. Ideally, the coalition hopes the program will live beyond the pilot in the Iowa Department of Education and will be state funded for ECE and K-12 sites. Her advice for other states considering a CACFP incentive pilot: “talk to states who have done this before, and know how much time this will take.”

Making it Work: Why Local Purchasing is Still Important and How to Make it Work in ECE Settings

NFSN Staff Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center
By National Farm to School Network's Farm to ECE Working Group - Procurement Subgroup

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in communities across the country. Early care and education (ECE) and food systems have been profoundly impacted and the inequities in access to quality care and nutritious food have only deepened. Many ECE providers and food producers alike are fighting to keep their businesses alive, even as the essential nature of these businesses becomes more apparent. As families face extended financial challenges and potential food insecurity, ECE sites are an important access point for nutritious food for children and families. For that reason, farm to ECE initiatives, especially local food purchasing, offer benefits that may prove even more important right now: 
  • ECE sites can link families to the source of local food (farmer’s market, local farms, CSA or food boxes, etc) contributing to sustainable local food systems and increasing access to local food sources.
  • Purchasing local food supports local producers and invests dollars back into the local economy and the local food system.
  • Incorporating local foods in meals can increase nutritional value, quality, and appeal of meals, helping ensure children get the nutrition they need to stay healthy and be ready to learn.  
ECE sites are facing unprecedented financial challenges, including reduced enrollment and limitations in parents’ ability to pay, paired with increased expenses related to meeting health and safety guidelines of reopening. The National Farm to School Network Farm to ECE Procurement Subgroup has compiled recommendations to help local food fit within any budget, including tips for leveraging innovations and partnerships that have emerged through the COVID-19 crisis. For additional resources to support local purchasing, check out the Farm to ECE Local Food Purchasing Resource Compilation. 
  • Utilize the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) - CACFP provides reimbursement for meals and snacks served in ECE settings and is an important way to further food budgets. USDA not only allows, but encourages the use of local foods in CACFP meals and snacks. Connect with your state agency contact to get more information about CACFP in your state. For more tips on using CACFP for local purchasing, take a look at USDA’s Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs Guide or Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems’ Local Food for Little Eaters Toolbox.
  • Seek out Seasonal - In many parts of the country, late summer and early fall signal peak abundance of locally grown foods. When produce is abundant, it is also often less expensive. Learn about seasonal availability in your region with this Seasonal Food Guide. Many states have also developed their own guides, like this one from Louisiana State University which shows the vegetable subgroups recommended by CACFP.
  • Count on Community -  During the COVID-19 crisis, communities have come together to ensure families have enough to eat, sometimes through programs that purchase food from local producers to distribute in the community. Community development organizations, local community foundations, and community food access organizations (like food banks and pantries), may be able to offer local foods as a donation or at a reduced price to ECE sites and to families they serve. Find your local food bank through Feeding America and learn more about the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program here. Donated foods are allowable in CACFP with appropriate documentation. Contact your state administering agency for more information. 
  • Order Online - As producers shift to online marketplaces there is increased opportunity for connection and purchasing that can accommodate the smaller quantities needed in ECE settings. Increased options in online purchasing can allow providers to find the producer or vendor with the preferred product, quantity, price, and pick-up/delivery options. Browse the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Local Foods Directory to find producers, farmers markets, and food hubs in your area.
  • Get Growing - On-site edible gardens not only provide valuable hands-on experiential learning, but can be an access point for locally grown produce. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown in the ECE garden can be used in meals and snacks, or shared with families to take home.  
Even as the costs and impacts of COVID-19 continue to mount, the importance of strong ECE and food systems, and the opportunity for these systems and stakeholders to work together, is only becoming more apparent. Starting or continuing to offer local foods to children and families is one way to contribute to healthy learning environments and healthy communities that benefit families today and build strength and resilience for whatever the future holds. 

More Resources for Farm to ECE and COVID-19: 

Advisory Board Perspectives: Wande Okunoren-Meadows and Little Ones Learning Center Team

NFSN Staff Wednesday, August 05, 2020
This post is part of National Farm to School Network's new series of interviews with members of our Advisory Board about the impacts, challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has brought about for the farm to school movement. 

Photo Credit: Linden Tree Photography (courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center) 
Name: Wande Okunoren-Meadows
Title: Executive Director
Organization: Little Ones Learning Center
Location: Forest Park, GA 
First-year on the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board

Little Ones Learning Center Team: Stacie McQuagge (Farm to ECE Educator), Pang Skelton (Little Lions Farm Stand), and Luyanda Koboka (Master Gardener)

Wande Okunoren-Meadows and her dedicated team at Little Ones Learning Center joined Sadé Collins, NFSN Programs Fellow, to discuss the COVID-19 emergency in early care and education (ECE) centers. Wande and partners share how Little Ones Learning Center is using innovation in farm to ECE and the importance of building resilient and equitable community food systems during this time. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“There continues to be a need for wholesome grab-and-go options and funding to support farmers providing local produce and ECE providers continuing nutrition education. Food banks are not enough.” -Wande Okunoren-Meadows

Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia has continued to live up to their motto “Where Children Grow. Serving the Child, Family and Greater Community” even during unprecedented times. Over the years, the center has prioritized healthy eating and bringing their community together to educate parents and children on healthier food choices. Farm to early care and education (ECE) is part of their holistic environment where young learners are able to plant, care for and harvest their own foods on-site. This hands-on engagement provides nutrition education and the promotion of local foods.
Sade: Briefly tell us about your current professional role and your connection to National Farm to School Network. 

Wande: I am the Executive Director of Little Ones Learning Center in Clayton County. The center is located in the suburb area of metro Atlanta where the Child Well Being Index is the lowest of the metro Atlanta counties. The index provides a sense of the direction of overall well-being and resources that are needed to tackle complex issues and drive sustainable change. Supporting child and family well-being during the pandemic has called attention to opportunities for positive change and that there is much work that needs to be done in the area in which the center resides.

Stacie: I have served as the Farm to ECE Educator and the lead for farm to ECE programming for the last 3-4 years.

Pang: I am the assistant to everyone at the center, I do everything. 

Luyanda: I serve as the Master Gardener and am responsible for Tasty Tuesdays.

“Teaching children about social distancing, as the children are transitioning back to the center, is hard because they don’t understand why they cannot be with their friends and other teachers.” -Pang

Sade: Tell us about how the COVID-19 emergency has impacted your work. 

Wande: The COVID-19 emergency has impacted the work of the center in a way that is uncertain.  The impacts have been felt by the community, the local food banks, and the children. Neighbors inquire about receiving food from the center from time to time to help feed their families and local food banks and meal sites were initially not accessible for all children in the area which presented equity challenges. Now, due to public outcry, local administrators have changed their practices to include young children. There continues to be a need for wholesome grab-and-go options and funding to support farmers providing local produce and ECE providers continuing nutrition education. Food banks are not enough.

Stacie: It has been difficult not being able to see the children and children not being able to see us, so we are trying to make things as normal and accessible as possible for children and parents. Our chef is still preparing fresh foods while using fresh ingredients sourced locally as well as from our own school garden. To adapt our Farm to ECE program for COVID-19, we have been using virtual platforms to do taste test activities and learning games with the children that are not able to be at the center, such as Funtastic Fridays, where children do a different activity each week based on the Harvest of the Month. Some of the foods they have made and sampled are berry and yogurt parfaits, blueberry bark, Texas Caviar, and blueberry juice through the USDA Grow It, Try It, Like It kit. To extend our Farm to ECE educational program for the children at home, we are working with the Small Bites Adventure Club for a pilot program at home.  For the families at our center, as well as the families in the community, we have been distributing farm fresh produce through the Hand, Heart + Soul Project's Farmers to Families Food Box program. This program is providing families in the community farm fresh produce every Thursday, for 6 weeks, distributing about 300 boxes per week. [Note: the Hands, Heart + Soul Project received a grant from National Farm to School Network's COVID-19 Relief Fund.]

Luyanda: At this time, I am really missing the children, especially gardening and talking with the young learners about harvesting. Overall, there is a void.

Pang: The number of children at the center has decreased and more families are staying home which has impacted the centers house and teachers schedules. Teaching children about social distancing, as the children are transitioning back to the center, is hard because they don’t understand why they cannot be with their friends and other teachers.

Sade: What inequities and challenges are you seeing as a result of the COVID-19 emergency?  

Wande:  It is frustrating, it is inequity, upon inequity. Grab-and-go, shelf table food while convenient, is not always the most nutrient dense and nutritious, wholesome food to sustain kids long term.

“Getting businesses to help our communities with resources such as food is our goal. We want to provide children with healthy foods such as fresh produce from gardening and the food that is offered isn’t always nutritious and healthy.”-Stacie

Sade: Thinking about what has helped Little One’s Learning Center continue to offer enriching nutrition education and resources for young learners and families, what relationships have been meaningful and impactful during this time?

Wande: Existing relationships, networks and partnerships have provided critical support to Little Ones Learning Center’s work during this time.  Georgia Organics, a non-profit providing direct support to small and organic farmers, has been a great partner in engaging in meaningful dialogue. Additionally, funding from National Farm to School Network will allow the center to purchase more boxes from Small Bites Adventure Club, an organization that offers farm-to-table cooking kits for classrooms, to introduce local foods to kids. 

Stacie: Getting businesses to help our communities with resources such as food is our goal. We want to provide children with healthy foods such as fresh produce from gardening and the food that is offered isn’t always nutritious and healthy. Also, young learners are not getting time in the garden and have to wear masks which is different for small children. Social interaction is also missing because the classrooms are no longer gardening together. 

“Emerging out of COVID-19, there is the idea of understanding collaborations through “equitable dinners”....the sharing of different perspectives would lead to meaningful collaborations.”-Wande

Sade: What are you doing now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, that you hope to keep moving forward, once we emerge out of an emergency state?

Wande: Emerging out of COVID-19, there is the idea of understanding collaborations through “equitable dinners” by bringing various stakeholders such as health, educators, farmers and parents together to have dialogue. This dialogue would be accompanied by facilitated sessions that are about how the different worlds intersect. For example, explaining monocrop farming, genetically modified organisms and multigenerational farming to parents. The sharing of different perspectives would lead to meaningful collaborations.

StacieEmerging out of COVID-19, there is interest in continuing online taste testing monthly or weekly for family night to keep families engaged.

Luyanda: This time has allowed for focusing on lesson planning and revamping priorities at the center. Overall it has been great seeing parents engage more on social media and through other online platforms.

Pang: Communication through social media has been helpful in engaging families. A weekly newsletter has also been created to keep families informed of what is happening at the center and other local opportunities. I hope all parents support local farmers moving forward. 

“Kids need to know how to grow their own food and understand that they can do many things on their own without approval or waiting on others to "save" them. The less we have to get "permission" from the government or others to do things that we know are good and beneficial to children and for communities, the better.”-Wande 

Sade: What has this crisis shown you about our country’s food system?

Wande: The crisis has uncovered the food system needs work. The “Stay-at-Home” mantra is not applicable to all. It has shown that grocery store workers are essential and they cannot stay at home. Child care centers are still open and needed for people who are working outside of home. 

Sade: Why is farm to ECE, and more broadly, community food systems, so important right now?

Wande: Kids need to know how to grow their own food and understand that they can do many things on their own without approval or waiting on others to "save" them. The less we have to get "permission" from the government or others to do things that we know are good and beneficial to children and for communities, the better. There is no reason that there should be regulations around children eating from the garden or purchasing from their onsite garden. It's nature! If we can reach the kids now, at the foundation, we can change the wiring of a generation. 

Stacie: Farm to ECE was very important before COVID-19 and it has come into play because children know where food comes from. Farm to ECE concepts are also translating from the center to homes.

Pang: Children are missing out on essential needs. 

To learn more about the experience of Little Ones Learning Center staff amidst the COVID-19 crisis, watch Wande testify to members of Congress serving on the DNC planning committee.

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