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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.


Preschool's Farm & Food Partnerships Keep Kids Eating Local

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 30, 2020

Photo credit: Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center, taken in 2019. 
Guest blog by NC Farm to Early Care & Education, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems

Based in Silk Hope, North Carolina, Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center (Sonflower Seeds) has cared for children from 6 weeks old to age 12 for the past 15 years. Silk Hope is a small rural community near the Triangle of NC and beyond their play area lies 500 acres of pasture. Sonflower Seeds has been a leader in their county for many years for their support of local food and farms. 

Though the number of children at the Center has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonflower continues to serve many children of farmers, paramedics, police, and other essential workers. We spoke with Heidi Lineberry, Sonflower Seeds’ Director, to learn how sourcing local food has allowed them to continue serving nutritious meals to the children throughout the pandemic while supporting farmers nearby. 

The NC Farm to ECE Initiative, facilitated by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, works with early childhood facilities and their communities to purchase local food and provide children with experiential learning around local food. The Farm to ECE Collaborative organizes community teams throughout North Carolina to connect food and early childhood systems. 

Sonflower Seeds has been part of the Collaborative for a few years now. In 2019, with support from NC Farm to ECE, Sonflower Seeds formalized their commitment to local food by implementing a center policy that they serve fresh produce five days a week.

Sonflower Seeds’ dedication to sourcing locally began about eight years ago, when Heidi realized that she could have milk and other dairy products delivered from a local dairy, Homeland Creamery, rather than using staff time and gas for hauling 20+ gallons of milk from the grocery store every week. They also source most of their produce locally from Red Roots Farm, Okfuskee Farm, and Kildee Farm, eggs from Edell’s Eggs, apples and berries from Millstone Creek Orchards, and ground beef from Smithview Farm. Several of these farmers have children or grandchildren who attend Sonflower Seeds. Heidi connected with other farmers through word of mouth or recommendations from other farmers. 

Sourcing food from local farmers as well as having a garden on site, has benefited Sonflower Seeds in many ways, including: 

Product availability even during emergencies: Sonflower Seeds’ existing connections with local farmers has allowed them to serve nutritious, local foods without disruption even when other centers in their area have struggled to find milk and other products during the pandemic. They were already well accustomed to ordering and delivering procedures and local suppliers prioritized Sonflower Seeds as loyal customers.

Child nutrition, experiential learning, and family engagement: Heidi believes serving nutritious local foods is part of their commitment to caring for the “whole child.” When produce is delivered, children get to know the farmers by name and learn that real people in their community grow their food. Sonflower also hosts a pop-up farmers market for parents to meet the farmers and learn how the food is produced. When the center receives carrots with the greens on, children learn which part grows below the ground and which part above and practice preparing fresh produce with child-friendly utensils. The children also love to walk through the center’s strawberry patch, and parents are interested in helping in the garden too.  

When the egg farmer has fewer eggs during the winter, the center overcomes this by slightly altering their menus and uses this as a learning opportunity to share with the children how it’s natural for chickens to take a break from laying eggs in the wintertime. One of the farmer's children was excited to share when his family got more chicks and to tell his friends they’d have more eggs soon!

Food quality and taste
: The local produce is fresh and delicious. Sonflower Seeds offers taste tests for the children and many opportunities to try new foods, and has seen the children become more adventurous. Children might not eat cooked spinach, but will pluck the leaves and eat them raw from the garden.

Marketing: Sourcing locally has helped Sonflower Seeds to attract new families too. They send out a questionnaire to new families about children’s dietary needs and preferences and promote their participation in Farm to ECE so parents know it is a priority. They display a Farm to ECE poster provided by the Collaborative on a fence outside of the building. This year alone, Sonflower Seeds added five new families because of their commitment to local foods. 

Heidi says, “The Farm to ECE Collaborative has grown our Center. It has helped us to see that a little bit of what we were already doing can be done on a broader scale, it helped turn us into a niche program by putting into policy that we serve fresh and local fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, and promoting it. Once you put things out there more things come to you.” 

The Center receives wholesale pricing from many of the local producers and says their monthly Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) reimbursement more than covers the costs of local and organic foods. She also learned that CACFP offers reimbursement for plants, seeds, and vegetables grown by the Center.

Heidi says she really enjoys the Farm to ECE Collaborative and the energetic staff, so much so that she decided to become one of seven mentors for other centers in North Carolina. As a co-leader of an Affinity group for center directors, Heidi helps to facilitate monthly meetings to discuss food and gardening and support other centers in meeting their Farm to ECE goals. The Chatham County Partnership for Children and their Child Care Health Consultant, Dorothy Rawleigh, has also helped Sonflower Seeds with connecting with farmers, other centers nearby, and purchasing materials for raised bed gardens.

“So much of children’s time is spent eating, why not make the quality of the food a priority?” Heidi’s advice for other centers considering Farm to ECE: “You have to be willing to do trial and error. Try to meet a farmer every month, and be willing to collaborate with other directors nearby. Just give it a try!”
  
Interested in getting started with sourcing locally? Check out these local food purchasing resources from the NC Farm to ECE Initiative. 

Celebrating the Week of the Young Child with Farm to ECE - Social Distancing & Family Friendly Activities

NFSN Staff Tuesday, April 14, 2020

By Sadé Collins, Programs Fellow

We recognize that during this unprecedented time, early care and education providers are making adjustments to meet the demand of local COVID-19 response efforts. That may mean limiting the number of children sites serve, changing activities to adhere to safety and social distancing guidelines, or halting business altogether, but providing families with tools and resources to support young children at home. With this in mind, National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is committed to supporting you and providing resources to help you think of ways to stay engaged. In our Week of the Young Child celebration recommendations, we’ve identified activities that are appropriate for safety and social distance measures during this time (SD Friendly) and also activities that work well to support families with resources or education activities (Family Friendly).

The Week of the Young Child™ (April 11-17, 2020) is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The purpose of the Week of the Young Child™ (WOYC) is to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs. National Farm to School Network is excited for another fun-filled week celebrating young children and their families! See below opportunities for farms to ECE activities during WOYC that support ECE providers in creating learning environments that align with NAEYC Program Standards and can be social distancing (SD) and family friendly.

Kick-Off Saturday: Host a collaborative kick-off.  Share ideas and prepare for a week of celebration.
  • Establish your site as an access point for families to purchase and learn about healthy, local foods by becoming a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)/food box pick-up site. (Family Friendly) 
  • Join an on-line learning and discussion community to share ideas and find support from others in the ECE community. (SD Friendly)
  • Replenish your arts and crafts supply for Artsy Thursday. (SD and Family Friendly)

Music Monday: Turn gardening into a routine. 
  • Turn on the music and start every garden time with a musical warm up. Simple garden activities can be set up as an obstacle course using old plant pots and then have students weave in and out of the pots. (SD and Family Friendly) 
  • Encourage children to engage in “seed yoga” to music. Invite children to curl into a ball to pretend to be a seed, then guide them through movements of unfurling and stretching along with the rhythm as they “grow roots,” “send out leaves,” and “grow flowers and fruit”.  (SD and Family Friendly)

Tasty Tuesday:  Conduct a taste testing activity to allow children to try new or unfamiliar food. 
  • Set up taste tests of local ingredients and food from the garden or local grocer and try a new recipe at home. (Family Friendly)
  • Create a recipe book using images the children draw and share the book with family. (SD and Family Friendly)
 
Work Together Wednesday: Build together, celebrate together.*
  • Engage in self-initiated sensory table play with a variety of kitchen tools (e.g., measuring cups and spoons, colanders, sifters). Be sure to sanitize tools. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Create a space for tiny helpers to make cooking with toddlers easy and fun. (Family Friendly)
  • Children can work together in small groups with sanitized tools and help with starting a vegetable garden. (SD and Family Friendly)

Artsy Thursday: Grow green thumbs with simple gardening crafts. 
  • Children can draw pictures about their time in the garden or a farm field trip and create class books about their experiences. (SD and Family Friendly)  
  • Provide clothing, props, and puppets that allow children to transform themselves into roles such as farmers, gardeners, and grocers. (Family Friendly)
  • Create handmade books to document stages of plant growth, areas of the garden during different times. (SD and Family Friendly)

Family Friday: Promote and enhance family and parent engagement. 
  • Send recipes home (via email) to engage families; highlight a seasonal fruit or vegetable. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Consider hosting a virtual event where parents can learn about how to cook or prepare food with children at home by using local produce. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Invite parents and family members to share their experience and expertise in farming, gardening, cooking, and other food and agriculture related activities via a newsletter. (SD Friendly)

While farm to ECE initiatives are an impactful approach for programs and educators, local-level and state-level farm to ECE initiatives can also support policy, system and environmental change. Building opportunities for farm to ECE initiatives can align with NAEYC state affiliate strategic plans and goals. Read more about how partner states are leveraging farm to ECE in our 2019 WOYC blog.

Now more than ever, we hope that we can all take this important week to recognize and celebrate the important role that ECE, particularly ECE providers, take in our community and find new and innovative ways to support young children and their families. You can find more resources to celebrate Week of the Young Child from NAEYC and can find more ways to grow farm to early care and education from the National Farm to School Network.

*Per CDC guidelines, “Do not share toys with other groups of infants or toddlers, unless they are washed and sanitized before being moved from one group to the other.”

Growing Healthy Eaters in Georgia

NFSN Staff Thursday, July 11, 2019
This post is part of our Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series, which is devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. Read previous posts in this series here. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at lacy@farmtoschool.org.


Children enjoying a radish taste test at Tee Tee’s Daycare in Valdosta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Kim Jackson, owner of Tee Tee’s Daycare .

Guest Blog By Gina Cook, Quality Care for Children

Beans, squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes are just a sampling of the many fruits and vegetables that grow in Georgia. Because Georgia’s climate allows tremendous opportunities for farmers, just about any crop can be grown successfully somewhere within the state.

However, many children grow up in Georgia not knowing where their food comes from and how it is grown. Many childcare providers may have limited access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods and serve only canned or frozen fruits and vegetables.  

In 2017, the formation of the Georgia Farm to ECE Learning Collaborative was made possible by a generous grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Eighteen early care providers across the state were selected to receive mini grants, resources, materials, training, and professional development opportunities to incorporate farm to ECE activities, including gardening, local procurement, and nutrition education. Here are some of the take-aways and lessons learned from the Learning Collaborative's activities. 

Overcoming Barriers to Eating Local Foods
Limited Access to Local Foods
One would think since farming is the foundation of the state’s economic well-being, there would be more locally grown produce in the stores. However, this was not always the case and providers needed support to find out where to purchase local foods. The Georgia Grown website has been helpful in identifying what is in season and finding farms and locations to purchase local foods. 

Time
Local farm stands are usually only open certain hours during the day or on the weekends. Family childcare providers cannot get away during the day since they are usually the only ones caring for the children and weekends are filled with family commitments. So running to the grocery store, which stays open late, may be the only option. Some providers have been able to find local products at the grocery stores they frequent and others have focused their attention on the foods they can grow in the garden and serve on-site as first steps for serving local foods.

Cost
The childcare providers were concerned that children would waste the food, especially if it was more expensive to purchase. Offering exposures to new foods through taste tests and gardening increase children’s acceptance of new foods and can help decrease food waste. A few of the sites have been creative in their purchasing practices to help address costs. One site was able to purchase marked-down produce by developing a relationship with a local farmer. 

Preparation
Many of the providers have commented on the time involved in the preparation of fresh, local foods.  They must spend more time washing, cutting, and cooking. It was much easier for them to open up a can or put frozen vegetables in the microwave. Several of the sites have struggled with knowing what foods to purchase, especially when it comes to picky eaters, and how to prepare. Choosing foods that are easy to prepare and broadly appealing to little ones, like cherry tomatoes, snap-peas, and strawberries, can be one initial way to overcome this challenge.  Spoilage has been a main concern since fresh food tends to go bad much quicker.  However, one provider has purchased a food storage vacuum system that allows her to freeze what she grows or purchases.  

Local Food Successes 
Gardening
All of the providers in the Learning Collaborative have planted a garden with a variety of vegetables.  Some are able serve these at meals and snacks and invite families to come and experience first-hand the garden.  Parents have shared that their children’s excitement and pride in their gardens is contagious.  Not only are the children more likely to try fruits and vegetables if they participate in the growing process, but the parents are too!  One parent remarked, “I am learning to eat red pepper because my son is eating it at school.”  

Family Engagement
The participants of the Learning Collaborative agree that behaviors around food are difficult to change.  Some of the providers have commented that getting their families to try new foods has come with some resistance.  To address this issue, providers welcome parents to cook and participate in a taste test with the children. Providers also offer dishes with familiar flavor profiles that go well will family staples like beans and rice eaten by Hispanic families served by the childcare site.  Some of the gardens produce an abundance of vegetables and the sites have given some to the families in their care along with a simple recipe to make at home. 

Despite the challenges, all of the providers agree that the successes outweigh the barriers. Children are enjoying gardening and eating what they grow.  They try more foods and actually like them! They can even tell you how seeds grow!  This enthusiasm has spread to the families at the sites and now families are becoming more aware of what they are serving at home.  One provider tells the story of the little girl who ASKS for salad now!  

You can hear more about local procurement in family child care in Georgia from Gina and family child care owner, Maria Claudia Ortega, in this NFSN webinar, Farm to Early Care and Education in Family Child Care.  

Bottom photo: Families love working in the garden together! Photo courtesy of Maria Claudia Ortega, owner of My Little Geniuses in Marietta, GA

New Local Food Purchasing Guide from NC Cooperative Extension

NFSN Staff Wednesday, June 19, 2019
This post is part of our Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series, which is devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. Read previous posts in this series here. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at lacy@farmtoschool.org.



Guest blog by Dara Bloom and Caroline Stover

Are you ready to purchase local food for your center, but you don’t know where to start? 

We are excited to share a new resource from the Kellogg-funded Farm to Early Care and Education project in North Carolina all about local food purchasing! This NC Cooperative Extension publication will be useful for child care centers and technical assistance providers who are trying to figure out the best way to purchase local food for meals and snacks for their centers. We based this publication off of the experiences of the 12 child care centers in 10 counties that participated in the North Carolina Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ Farm to ECE project in 2017. Working with these centers, we found that there was no “one size fits all” answer to how to most easily purchase local food for meals and snacks. Each center completed a self-assessment to determine what was most important to them, and used new or existing partnerships within their community to figure out what local food options were available to them. The result was a variety of different ways to purchase local food, depending on their priorities and local context.

It can be hard to provide guidance to centers and technical assistance providers about local food purchasing when it depends so much on their context and what their priorities are, but we took what these centers learned and created a short guide that walks you step-by-step through what to think about as you start to purchase local food. Here are some highlights of the tips and resources that we share:

How do you define “local”? 
Since there’s no set definition for local, we encourage centers to first think about what they value most about purchasing local food to help them create a definition. It’s also a good idea to engage parents and staff in determining what will count for local for you. For example, you might want to stick with farmers within your community, or you might feel comfortable with a more regional definition or statewide. Some centers choose to support certain types of farmers with their purchases based on race or gender. Whatever you choose, make sure you communicate your definition to your community and your vendors.

What local food option is best for you?
We’ve developed a decision tree along with a description of several different types of vendors who sell local food to help you decide which vendor works best for you based on your capacity, needs, and preferences. The decision tree asks you to consider whether you need food for meals or just snacks and taste tests, how many children are in your center, what your storage capacity is, and whether you want to have a direct relationship with your farmer or you’re comfortable working through a third party to purchase local food. For centers who don’t want to create a new purchasing account, we encourage them start where they already purchase, whether that’s a distributor or grocery store. But remember, purchasing local food is going to require some relationship-building and investment no matter what vendor you choose!



How can you expand the market for local farmers?
Sometimes centers order very small volumes of produce, especially when they choose to start small and only need enough for snacks or taste tests. While this is a great strategy to help centers get their feet wet with local food purchasing and integrate it into their kitchens and classrooms, these small volumes aren’t enough to support a farmer in the long run. In addition, farmers may not want to go out of their way to deliver a small volume, since it doesn’t make much sense for them economically. However, there are a lot of ways that you can work to help make the market more profitable. For example, if you can work with other centers and place orders together, you can order higher volumes. Don’t forget that you can also advertise to parents and staff as another potential market. This may mean offering your center as a CSA drop-off point (Community Supported Agriculture, see https://www.localharvest.org/csa/ for more information).  It can also help a farmer if you advertise who you purchase from so that parents can look for those farmers in other markets. Finally, consider talking to your local farmer about purchasing “seconds”, or smaller sized products that they might have a hard time selling in other markets.

To see the full guide and the decision tree, as well as other resources, check out: go.ncsu.edu/f2ecelocalfoodpurchasing.

Farm to ECE Opportunities in North Alabama

NFSN Staff Wednesday, May 29, 2019
This post is part of our Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series, which is devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. Read previous posts in this series here. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at lacy@farmtoschool.org 


Strawberries. Sweet potatoes. Squash. Microgreens. These are just some of the Alabama-grown fresh fruits and vegetables that the Farm Food Collaborative (FFC) has been distributing to local restaurants, grocery stores, and schools across North Alabama since 2013. Now, Natalie Bishnoi and Carey Martin-Lane, FFC co-managers, are bringing these fresh fruits and vegetables to early care and education (ECE) settings. 

FFC offers a unique model for farm to ECE procurement as they are a food hub housed within the Food Bank of North Alabama. Originally established to support farmers selling “fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to Alabama schools, hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants and workplace cafeterias,” FFC helps farmers obtain GAP certification so they can sell their products in wholesale markets and distributes local foods to major grocery chains and school sites in North Alabama. FFC recently extended their local procurement service to ECE settings by launching a pilot project at 5 ECE sites in the Huntsville and Madison County region of Alabama.

The concept for the farm to ECE procurement pilot launched in 2017 when FFC connected with the Alabama Partnership for Children. The two organizations along with other ECE and food systems partners began building a statewide farm to ECE coalition. The coalition contributed to pilot planning by hosting focus groups and developing a survey to determine the interest and potential engagement level of ECE providers in the region. The pilot officially launched in spring of 2018 with weekly deliveries of strawberries to the 5 ECE sites, and quickly expanded to include cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peaches, squash, zucchini, blueberries, watermelon, apples, and satsumas.

FFC had to overcome several challenges to bring fresh, locally grown food to these ECE sites. First, many ECE providers lacked equipment or staff to prepare fresh food on site. To begin to address this, FFC launched the pilot with strawberries, an easy snack that requires minimal preparation. This approach also helped FFC win over hesitant staff at the sites. The cook at one site in particular was very hesitant about local foods. After strawberry season, his whole perception and attitude toward serving fresh food had changed and he was very enthusiastic, especially about the quality of the produce.

FFC also found that the ECE sites needed additional support to both incorporate fresh, local food into their food budgets and encourage child acceptance of new foods. In the pilot, FFC targeted ECE sites participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and educated providers on using local foods within the CACFP meal pattern. In addition, FFC provided educational resources – book recommendations, coloring sheets, garden-related activities, USDA recipes, etc. – for ECE providers to use when introducing new foods to familiarize children with the food and teach them how crops are grown and harvested. These materials include a parent newsletter with program information, age-appropriate cooking activities, and explanations about WIC and SNAP eligibility requirements. “Again, part of our mission that is so important to us is [food] access. A lot of people qualify [for WIC and SNAP] without realizing it,” Natalie notes.



FFC also had to navigate the much smaller quantity of product required for ECE sites. Instead of asking farmers to deliver these microcases to the individual ECE sites, farmers deliver to the food bank, or in some cases, FFC will pick up the orders and transport them in a Food Bank-shared refrigerated van to the sites themselves. Their advice for tackling the transportation and logistics of Farm to ECE? Pair up with a food hub. “They have the procurement and distribution piece established already and pooling resources is imperative for sustainability,” Carey explains.

FFC sees their success not just in the increased amount of local foods served to and eaten by young children, but in the increased interest in and focus on healthy local foods at the ECE sites they are working with. One site is starting a garden with the help of Master Gardeners, and another will be connecting with an on-site farmers’ market for families and community members. FFC attributes much of the success of the pilot to the collaboration and support of the Alabama Farm to ECE Coalition. The work has also been heavily influenced and informed by farm to ECE networks and stakeholders in other states. “We are extremely grateful to states like Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina,” Carey says. “They have been so helpful and willing to share information. That really is just a part of the farm to school/ECE culture. We are all trying to make our kids as healthy as possible. That’s a wonderful thing.

With the support of the Alabama Farm to ECE Coalition and national partners, FFC is planning for growth and expansion of local food procurement in ECE sites across Alabama. FFC will be expanding to 12 sites in North Alabama this summer and will start reaching new areas of the state in subsequent years. Eventually, FFC would like to have its own processing capability to provide ECE sites with local, pre-chopped fruits and veggies, increasing opportunities for more ECE sites to serve local products in meals and snacks. Natalie notes that once an ECE site gets involved with serving fresh, local food to their kids, they are hooked – the ECE providers and kids alike. As demand continues to grow, FFC will be working hard this strawberry season to keep up with interest and to grow farm to ECE across the state. “Our local farmers are able to select varieties that are delicious and nutritious. When our prime harvest season is here, we want to make sure we are taking advantage of it for the kids, community, farmers and the local economy.”  

Celebrate the Week of the Young Child with Farm to Early Care and Education

NFSN Staff Monday, April 08, 2019
By NFSN Staff; Erin Croom, Georgia Organics; and Kelly Hanson, Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children 

The Week of the Young Child (WOYC) is a week-long celebration of our youngest learners and eaters. Hosted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), WOYC recognizes and celebrates the importance of early care and education (ECE) and the educators, families, and communities that contribute to each young child’s success. NFSN is celebrating  WOYC by sharing the abundant opportunities of farm to ECE to support ECE providers in creating high-quality learning environments and aligning with NAEYC Program Standards. While farm to ECE initiatives are an impactful approach for programs and educators, state-level farm to ECE initiatives can support positive systems level change. The collaboration and state-wide network building opportunities of farm to ECE initiatives can align with AEYC state affiliate strategic plans and goals. State affiliate farm to ECE initiatives and partnerships, like these examples from Georgia and Iowa, demonstrate the power of these partnerships and the benefit to providers, families, and children.  

Farm to ECE Training Delights and Empowers NAEYC Annual Conference Attendees
In 2017, Georgia Organics and Georgia AEYC partnered to host a farm to ECE pre-conference training for NAEYC Annual Conference participants. This workshop served as a fundraiser for the Georgia AEYC affiliate and offered the opportunity to highlight farm to ECE as a strategy to meet programmatic and early learning standards. The six hour training took a deep dive into farm to ECE with 25 participants from across the US and two other countries.

The session started with context setting from Lacy Stephens, National Farm to School Network Program Manager, who gave an overview of farm to ECE research and case studies. Next, participants explored hands-on activities from four of our favorite curriculums: they bravely reached their hand into a mystery bag and described what they felt (USDA’s Grow It, Try It, Like It); they organized toy animals and kitchen supplies (A Guide to Using the Creative Curriculum to Support Farm to ECE Models by the Policy Equity Group); they sang a garden song in English and Spanish (Our First Harvest from City Blossoms) and finally tasted a variety of colorful carrots (Harvest for Healthy Kids).  

And of course, they cooked! Participants created three simple and healthy recipes that young children could help make: veggie quesadillas, hummus dip and veggies; and a plant part salad.  The veggie-centered lunch menu highlighted local foods and also met CACFP meal standards! The session wrapped up with a robust discussion on how participants could replicate the training with their program staff, and they shared ideas and recommendations on how to start and grow farm to ECE.


Farm to ECE training attendees use all of their senses to explore a carrot in a lesson from Harvest for Healthy Kids. 

Training attendees prepare to share a plant part salad for lunch. 

Iowa AEYC and Farm to ECE Partnership Expands Healthy Opportunities 
In 2016, the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children (Iowa AEYC) received funds from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to lay the foundation for farm to ECE across the state of Iowa. They partnered with the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, an organization that has made gains in community wellness and regional food systems through several touchpoints, including early childhood. Iowa AEYC launched their farm to ECE work by completing an environmental scan, engaging its association members in the process. The scan focused on identifying current healthy food access and physical activity initiatives, identifying gaps in program reach, and interviewing stakeholders on priority needs. 

From this, the Farm to ECE Learning Group model was born. Regional cohorts of early childhood educators meet monthly to explore farm to ECE concepts. These educators are given the tools they need to integrate farm to ECE into their ECE settings. Together, the educators also explore ways to engage families in order to drive healthy eating at home. The Farm to ECE Learning Group model emphasizes developmentally appropriate practices and supports the early childhood workforce by making gardening, nutrition education, and local food purchasing manageable within the demands of the early childhood sector today. The most important lesson learned—one size does not fit all. It is important work within the differences in age groups served, funding streams, geographic location, and family background. 

Farm to ECE blends seamlessly with the strategic plan of Iowa AEYC. Farm to ECE expands the focal point of the support system around young children. Beyond the parents, and childcare environment to society as a whole. It builds on community resources and partnerships recognizing that hungry, undernourished children are unable to meet their full potential. The program also operates within the affiliate’s core beliefs valuing innovation, transparency, and collaborative relationships. 

Learn more about the Week of the Young Child and find ways to celebrate on the NAEYC website. To learn more about connecting farm to ECE and AEYC state affiliates or to get started with farm to ECE, contact Lacy Stephens, NFSN Program Manager, at lacy@farmtoschool.org.

Small Changes Add Up To Big Impacts In ECE Meals

NFSN Staff Thursday, April 04, 2019
This post is part of our Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series, which is devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. Read previous posts in this series here. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at lacy@farmtoschool.org 



Guest Blog by Starr Morgan, Executive Director of Grand Rapids Early Discovery Center

“Farm to table is too expensive.” 
“I don’t have a commercial kitchen for scratch cooking.”
“I don’t have enough time.”
“The children won’t like the food.” 
“The teachers won’t support this.” 

These are just a few of the reasons that early care and education programs may be hesitant to change their current meal practices. But what if implementing a farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) meal service doesn’t have to be all or nothing? What if transitioning to local foods is no more expensive than most current food service budgets? What if children love the food, especially the funny colored carrots or purple potatoes? 

Over the last 15 years, I have made healthy options for children a priority in the early childhood education programs I have led. I am currently the Executive Director at the Grand Rapids Early Discovery Center, an inner city Reggio Emilia inspired early learning program serving children six weeks to kindergarten. With an ill-equipped, small kitchen I have transformed the food program into one that is locally sourced, providing scratch-made healthy meals for children. I have also transformed the food program at an ECE center with a large commercial-grade kitchen – one where meals were prepared and delivered by an outside source – and even one without a stove or oven! What I have learned is that changes can be made a little at a time or all at once. The budget doesn’t have to increase and a commercial kitchen is not required. Here are some small changes to begin transitioning to meals and snacks that are locally and intentionally sourced, scratch-made, and healthy!

Collaborations are Essential
It is essential that leadership in the program to find value in farm to ECE efforts. The board of directors, program director, kitchen manager and/or any other leadership positions must be on board and support the food service staff. All persons involved in procurement, menu planning, and cooking must also find this work important. Without the support of those making decisions and implementing the menus, the steam quickly pitters out. My first step as a program director included making my case to the executive director by sharing the benefits of transitioning our food service to one that values local, fresh, made-from-scratch healthy meals and snacks. I asked for an increased food budget for three months to track the cost, accessibility, and feasibility to maintain the changes long term. Once permission was granted, planning was essential before beginning the three month test phase.  

A local food hub in my area that supplies food from farms to restaurants at wholesale prices was our first connection. Through West Michigan Farm Link we were able to purchase fresh produce, large blocks of cheeses, yogurt, grass fed beef, non-GMO chicken, and other food items from local farms. A local bakery supplied us with bread and buns at wholesale prices.  

After three months, I learned that with careful planning our budget did not increase as we incorporated local, fresh, food made from scratch!



Time is on Your Side
It is helpful when programs acknowledge that a transition to local food sourcing doesn’t need to happen all at once. Implementing small, meaningful changes helps create sustainability in the long run. Start by identifying what produce can be easily swapped out for healthier or locally sourced versions. Let’s face it – in Michigan (as in many states) the short growing season will never allow us to transition to 100% locally sourced fresh produce. But when things are in season, start by making a few key switches – like fresh green beans instead of canned green beans. Explore participating in a CSA, purchasing from a local food hub, or even growing a center garden. Programs can also connect with local farm-to-table restaurants to ‘buddy up’ with purchasing at wholesale prices. Teaming up with other local businesses can also be helpful, such as a local bakery for slider buns. Taking time to develop relationships can lead to long-term, sustainable procurement opportunities. When identifying sources for procurement, it is helpful to be creative and think outside the ‘farm’!   

Details Matter
If you’re concerned about how procuring local foods might impact your budget, take a detailed look at your current expenses. Consider where you might be able to reduce spending in order to leave room for more local foods. What do you purchase pre-made that can be made from scratch? For example, locally sourced tomatoes and spices can be an easy alternative for pre-made pizza sauce, tomato soup, or spaghetti sauce. If you’re purchasing individually packaged items (snack crackers, raisin boxes, etc.), considering swapping to bulk packaging and use the savings for local food. Changing purchasing patterns can be an easy way to reduce waste, save money, and reallocate funds to healthier, local food. 
 
When leadership is on board, there are many steps programs can take to start the process of transitioning to a farm to ECE food service. Research tells us that providing a variety of healthy meals and snacks at a young age has lifelong benefits including the development of healthy lifestyles and greater school success. Involve leadership, start small, and connect with your community!  

Starr Morgan is the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Early Discovery Center. She has worked in early childhood education for 22 years and has focused efforts in promoting healthy eating habits in young children for 13 years. Starr believes that when provided a large variety of healthy meals and snacks at a very young age, children can develop healthy habits that last a lifetime! 

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