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CACFP Take Action Challenge Celebrates Farm to Early Care and Education Champions

NFSN Staff Thursday, December 08, 2016
By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

For the past year, early care and education providers across the country have been stepping up to build a healthier future for children by participating in the CACFP Take Action Challenge. The CACFP Take Action Challenge was designed to boost awareness about the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and its vital role in improving children’s health, enhancing the quality of child care, and addressing serious national issues like food insecurity and childhood obesity. The challenge also celebrates the incredible work of CACFP sponsors and providers as they completed health oriented activities from a list of challenges and submitted stories and pictures showing their success. Many of these “Actioneers” found success in farm to early care and education initiatives, and emerged as leaders in CACFP and in farm to ECE!

Michelle France-Slimak of Apple Valley Family Child Care in Plantsville, Conn., achieved Gold level recognition in the Challenge through a wide variety of food-based learning activities. This year, the raised beds and pots at Apple Valley were full of peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and blueberry plants. The children find many ways to explore the foods they grow and the foods Michelle purchases from farmers markets. The vast array of sizes, shapes, and colors of produce make for fun, interactive lessons, and Michelle offers fruits and vegetables prepared in a variety of ways so children can compare tastes and flavors. With all of these learning opportunities, including field trips to local farms and orchards, Michelle has seen big changes in the food choices her children are making – choices that will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating. 

At TenderCare, a family child care home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, children not only follow local foods from seed to plate, but also learn how food can bring the community together. Gladys Movall, owner and provider at TenderCare, also happens to be a Master Gardener, and sees first hand the many lessons children learn in the garden, from appreciating the environment, to listening skills, teamwork, and time management. Gladys notes how enthusiastic the children are to try the foods that come out of the garden and to bring the foods home to their families. The children also learn about the importance of healthy food in the community by visiting farmers markets to talk to producers and by sharing the bounty of their garden with the local food bank. At TenderCare, children see the potential for a small seed to grow into big impacts in the community. 

At the 9 locations of the North Bay Children’s Center (NBCC) in central Calif., farm to ECE initiatives are integrated in a wide variety of activities through The Garden of Eatin’ program. Led by Garden and Nutrition Educators Lisa Bianchi and Lacey Packard, children plant and harvest in the gardens, cook with fresh garden produce, and participate in Harvest of the Month activities. NBCC carries the message of healthy, local eating into the community by developing new community gardens and providing parent educations about the importance of the farm to school movement. NBCC fosters a "wellness policy" company wide that includes staff development education on the importance of embracing healthy living through farm fresh foods. As staff learn about and become enthusiastic for gardening and healthy eating, children see this modeling and farm to ECE initiatives becomes an even more natural way of life for children and families, too. 

This was the first year to delve into farm to ECE activities for Coastal Community Head Start in N.C. Based on the positive feedback from teachers, families, and children, the organization is looking towards increasing their local purchases and integrating even more food-based activities into the program. Nutrition Manager Catherine Schlaefer, was thrilled to be able to purchase farm fresh treats from a producer just down the road for meals and snacks. Children and teachers alike noticed the difference in the flavor of these freshly picked strawberries, green peas, melons, cucumbers and fresh corn. Everyone is now looking forward to sweet potato season and Catherine is planning her menus to incorporate even more local foods next year. Catherine’s favorite thing about the Challenge was the way that it made meeting CACFP regulations fun and exciting and brought a “lighter side” to CACFP.  

While the CACFP Take Action Challenge has come to an end, these providers and the children, families, and community they serve will continue to reap the many benefits of farm to ECE. Read more stories of success on the CACFP Take Action Challenge website and find ways you can take action with farm to early care and education on the National Farm to School Network Farm to Early Care and Education webpage

Photo captions: Children at one of the Costal Community Head Starts enjoy exploring corn before cooking and tasting it (top); A child inspects microgreens at a North Bay Children’s Center site (bottom).

Good Food, Great Kids

NFSN Staff Thursday, November 10, 2016
What We Can Learn from Six Organizations Advancing a Farm to Early Care and Education Approach

 Photo credit: Mark Luinenburg, courtesy of pfc Social Impact Advisors
By Gayle Peterson, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Co-founder & Senior Managing Director, and Hilda Vega, pfc Social Impact Advisors, Vice President of Programs

In a time of change, many of us reflect on our values and passions and consider the kind of community we want our children to live in. We consider various policy options and how they have (or have not) worked to improve the lives of children and families across the country. Those of us involved in the fields of healthy food access or education will be looking for supportive policies in these areas, hoping that policy makers will continue projects like Let’s Move! or increased funding for Head Start programs. We’ll also hope that current battles, like those over Child Nutrition Reauthorization, will be resolved with the best possible outcome for children’s access to healthy food. A supportive policy environment, along with ingenuity and perseverance from the early care and education community are vital components to ensuring that all of our nation’s young children have access to healthy, nutritional foods and high quality learning opportunities.

With this need in mind, pfc Social Impact Advisors, in partnership with the National Farm to School Network and the BUILD Initiative, has developed a new set of case studies that highlight best practices from service providers using farm to ECE as an approach to support health, wellness, high-quality education, and community change. Part of the Good Food, Great Kids project, these case studies explore how multiple cities and regions embarked on the journey of bringing farm to ECE to vulnerable children in Head Start programs. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned: 

  • In Minneapolis/St. Paul, we learned about Hmong farmers working with Head Start centers and other local food service providers to enliven their menus with local food. 
  • In Washington, D.C., we met with staff and children of CentroNia, a multicultural and bilingual community and education center that incorporates school gardening, a healthy food curriculum, local procurement, and on-site scratch cooking to help students connect with their food. 
  • The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (BSRC) in Brooklyn is working to break down myths about farm to ECE by sharing their success in working with a local food hub and other partners to bring fresh food to early care programs and the greater community of Central Brooklyn. 
  • The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative, which works across six counties in Iowa, links together diverse community members such as local colleges, human service provides, and food service provider partners works to help more children under the age of five (and their families) learn about and have affordable access to healthy food and knowledge about it. 
  • In Kansas City, Mo, two concerned community members—one a chef and the other a farmer and promoter of better access to affordable, healthy food-- worked to create a program  that offers chef-driven meals in Head Start and other educational programs, healthy food education and access for children and families, and other experiential resources for children across the city. 
  • In Philadelphia, the Norris Square Community Alliance is embarking on a strategic planning process with community members to formally incorporate a farm to ECE program targeting 700 children and striving to benefit all families and neighbors who are part of the Norris Square community. 

You can dig deeper into each of the case studies here

Accompanying these new case studies is the Good Food, Great Kids policy research report, which highlights some of the most pressing challenges faced by farm to ECE programs, such as limited funding at the national and state levels to support these activities. It also highlights needs to have the space and resources to think more intentionally about equity, family engagement, the impact of policy realities on care providers, the need for bridge-building across sectors, and the need for more research about the impact of farm to ECE on child outcomes. 

There is no one-size fits all approach to farm to ECE. Yet, the six sites featured in these new resources found that bringing together complex issues like good food and early childhood education present a new way forward to ensure a good start and stronger future for children, especially those in vulnerable neighborhoods. Their experiences offer important guidance for others hoping to make nutritious food and high-quality early childcare and education a reality in their communities. By sharing and learning from stories like these, we can create momentum, spur innovation, and generate change that will help ensure that access to healthy, nutritional food is a right, not a privilege, for all young children. 

Growing Together: Garden Brings Together Veterans and Children

NFSN Staff Monday, October 24, 2016
By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate, National Farm to School Network

Photos courtesy of Veterans Organic Garden
The Peach Tree Head Start Garden sure didn’t seem like much to look at when veteran John Johns first laid eyes on it. The abandoned piece of land, conveniently situated between the Ukiah Veterans Administration Clinic and Peach Tree Head Start in Ukiah, Calif., was covered in years of overgrowth and unsafe for anyone, let alone children to wander through. With the commitment and diligence of Garden Manager Johns and other enthusiastic veteran gardeners of Veterans Organic Garden, and the coordination and support of the Gardens Project of North Coast Opportunities, in a relatively short time, this land had transformed into a sanctuary of healing for local veterans and an exciting place of learning and growing for the children of Peach Tree Head Start. 

The first step in the project was making the garden area safe enough for children to come into. Once this was accomplished, the planting could begin. Thanks to community donations and volunteer time, the garden soon started to fill with squash, tomato, cucumber, and pumpkin seedlings. The Head Start students were involved even from the very first stages of planting. The children started seedlings in the classrooms to plant in the garden and worked alongside veterans to plant pea seeds in the wooden barrels filled with donated soil and compost. 

Planting together was just the start of many valuable experiences in the garden, for both the children and the veterans. Throughout the growing and harvest season, the children made regular trips to the garden to see how their plants were growing and to nibble from the garden’s bounty. Johns says the peas planted in the beginning of the season were a popular treat and the children ate them up like candy.  He was also surprised to see how readily they gobbled up the spicy radishes. 

Head Start families are gaining hands on experience, too. Garden work days bring together veterans, teachers, parents, and children of all ages to pull weeds, tend plants, and take home bags of fresh produce. The impact of the garden continues into the Head Start kitchen and into the homes of the VA clinic patients. An average of 125 pounds a week of fresh produce from the garden has been served to students in meals and snacks at the Head Start and given away at the VA clinic.  

Johns sees significant benefits first hand for both veterans and children. The garden offers a place for mental and physical healing for veterans and empowers them with the opportunity to tend and manage their own plots. For Johns, the best part of the whole project is when the kids come up, hug him around the knees and thank him for gardening with them. Johns wants to engage even more veterans in this project so they can have that experience of admiration and appreciation. 

The relationships developed in the garden are meaningful and impactful for the children, too. Johns sees the children looking up to the growers and seeing them as role models, which increases their appreciation for farmers and food in general. The children get to engage in the growing experience with all their senses, from the time that they are very small, allowing them to develop a deep understanding of how food grows and where it comes from. Johns also hopes that by getting children in the garden early, they will grow up excited about growing their own food and make gardening a life long habit. 

The success of the garden is not going unnoticed in the community. After a recent newspaper article highlighted the project, several organizations reached out to offer donations, lands on which to start more community gardens, and partnership opportunities. Johns sees this positive response as testament to the importance and impact that a garden like this can have in the community. By bringing together veterans and the youngest gardeners in town, the garden is changing the community from the ground up.

Beet Hummus Bravery

NFSN Staff Tuesday, October 04, 2016
By Zack Silver, FoodCorps Service Member serving at the United Way of Passaic County in Paterson, New Jersey

Photo Credit: FoodCorps
Judah hated food. Well, that isn’t entirely true - he did eat some things. Cheerios in the morning if they didn’t touch any milk and he didn’t have to see nearby bowls of fruit. Plain pasta for lunch with no protein, veggies, or sauce. Snacks, but only crackers. On the days that the Center for Family Resources (CFFR) in Wayne, N.J., offered other meal options like yogurt or stir fry, Judah didn’t complain or bawl like some of his 4-year old classmates, or ask for alternatives. He simply sat in silence and watched his classmates eat. If I tried to put banana on his plate or serve steamed broccoli, that’s when the waterworks would begin.

However, as I started showing up often to CFFR to teach farm to school classes, presenting students with locally grown apples or inviting them to lay fresh compost on our garden’s raised beds, Judah became more trusting of me. When he watched his classmates cook new fruits and vegetables, from school-grown kale to exotic pomegranate and kiwi, he became reluctantly intrigued by these foods. A few months into the year, he progressed to allowing new food on his plate although he assured me he wouldn’t taste it, but would instead prod it with his fork and fingers when I asked him to, so he could feel the mushiness of a raspberry or the hardness of a rainbow chard stalk. These gestures were the first of many small steps Judah would take on his journey towards nutritional enlightenment.

Unfortunately for Judah, the final unraveling of his stubbornness was my blender. I brought it to class to make smoothies, salsa, and dip and its arrival was heralded with cheers from my preschoolers that would make a football stadium shake - it became the harbinger of fun and symbol for tasty produce. During classes, students would go in a circle to measure and add ingredients to blend, then line up for the coveted job of pressing the button and feeling the vibration under their fingers while classmates screamed in joy. Judah loved pressing the blender button. He reveled in his classmates’ yelps and stood triumphant as he made healthy treats.

Although Judah tried to resist, it was impossible to harvest a vegetable from his own garden, clean it tenderly, blend it with other ingredients, and still not want to taste it. And finally, one day in late spring, Judah succumbed. Our homemade beet hummus lay resplendent on his plate made from chickpeas, olive oil, tahini, lemon juice, and beets that he had pulled from the soil minutes before and chopped with a plastic knife. Judah gingerly dipped a pita chip into the magenta mass and brought it up to his lips where he stuck out his tongue and dabbed it with what was microscopically the smallest amount of food that could be considered “tasting.” He took another chip and a larger dab. I felt like I was at the top of a roller coaster, climbing inch by inch - I didn’t know when it was going to drop.

Five minutes later, I was spooning second helpings of beet hummus onto Judah’ plate, as he told me that “it tastes like raw candy!” To a preschooler that might be a standard compliment; to me, it was the highest praise I’ve ever received. The techniques that charmed Judah’s palate are helpful for kids at all levels of fruit and vegetable familiarity - they applaud courage, encourage taking just the smallest of steps, and help children find a new “yum” they never thought they could have.

FoodCorps is a national service organization that recruits, trains, and places AmeriCorps members to serve in high-need schools to connect kids to healthy food in school. Serving alongside educators and community leaders in 18 states, corps members focus on delivering hands-on lessons in gardening, cooking, and tasting healthy food; improving school meals; and encouraging a schoolwide culture of health.

Putting data to work

NFSN Staff Thursday, July 14, 2016
Messaging and advocacy with results from the NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Survey and USDA Farm to School Census 

By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

With abundant information from the National Farm to School Network 2015 National Survey of Early Care and Education Providers and the preK data from the USDA Farm to School Census, we have a better understanding than ever of the current reach of farm to early care and education. 

According to the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) survey, 54 percent of respondents are currently engaging in farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) activities, and the USDA census shows that 32 percent of responding school districts participate in these activities with preschool students. This information not only provides a picture of the current status of farm to early care and education, but can be a valuable tool to spread and scale the movement. NFSN’s survey infographic, fact sheet and full report and USDA’s website and data sets can be used to spark programmatic and policy change at multiple levels and engage all stakeholders in understanding the value of local food procurement, gardening and food and farm education.   

NFSN survey responses will resonate with early care and education providers – the survey’s respondents – who indicate that two of the top reasons for engaging in farm to ECE activities include improving children’s health and providing experiential learning opportunities. These reasons parallel goals in the early care and education community and underscore the opportunity for farm to ECE to create a high quality environment for young children. The survey also demonstrates the wide array of activities encompassed by farm to ECE, including the top three reported activities: teaching children about local food and how it grows, gardening and using local food in meals and snacks. 

State level stakeholders, such as state agencies housing the Child and Adult Care Food Program, those housing early childhood programs and early care and education professional or advocacy organizations, will find appealing the ability to use farm to ECE to meet health and early learning objectives and should note the wide spread interest in growing farm to ECE: in addition to the 54 percent of respondents already engaged, an additional 28 percent plan to start activities in the future. Further, the specific information regarding purchasing practices can help frame and tailor training opportunities. State level stakeholders may be interested to see that farm to ECE activities are being applied in all types of early care and education settings, so regardless of the type of program they work with, these opportunities abound.      

Local, state, and federal policy makers are important stakeholders to reach with data. The infographic and fact sheet developed from the NFSN survey are valuable tools to start these conversations as they not only outline the challenges in early childhood, including obesity, food insecurity and poor quality care and education, but also the opportunity to reach a large number of children and families through early care and education settings. The value of farm to ECE in addressing these problems is reflected in the motivations reported by respondents, including improving children’s health, experiential learning and increasing access to fresh, high quality food. 

Conveying the potential economic impacts is also important in communicating with policy makers. According to the NFSN survey, reporting respondents spent 27 percent of their food budget on local food and 74 percent of those purchasing locally plan to increase their purchases in the future – a huge potential boon to farmers and producers and local economies. Results also identify barriers to local purchasing, including cost and seasonality of food and unreliable supply. Understanding barriers can spur conversation about policies that may alleviate these issues, including increased funding, offering provider trainings and supporting local food supply chain infrastructure. USDA census data allows you to make your message local. Seeing how your state or school district compares to others in applying farm to school in preschool can be a great motivator to take action and catch up with other states or districts.

To spread and scale farm to early care and education and ensure that more children, families, and communities benefit from these valuable activities, we must reach stakeholders and garner support at every level. Equipped with data, resources and passion, farm to early care and education champions are furthering the movement everyday by advocating for programmatic and policy changes that not only directly support farm to early care and education, but create high quality learning environments and improved community food systems. 

For additional resources and ways to get involved by visiting our farm to early care and education and farm to school policy webpages. 

CACFP lifts up local

NFSN Staff Tuesday, May 17, 2016
By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate and Natalie Talis, Policy Associate 

In April, the United Stated Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (USDA FNS) released the much anticipated Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) meal pattern final rule and CACFP best practice recommendations. The National Farm to School Network, along with kids, farmers and communities, has reason to applaud these updates. The final rule and best practice recommendations create great opportunity to promote farm to school activities in CACFP programs and open the door for even more of the 3.3 million children served by CACFP to experience the benefits of farm to early care and education.  

The new meal pattern, which is the first revision since the start of the program in 1968, aims to improve the overall nutritional quality of CACFP meals and snacks and ensure that the standards more closely align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the final rule, FNS highlights the benefits and growing interest in utilizing local foods in CACFP programs:

Local foods: Local foods can play an important role in creating and promoting a healthy environment. A growing body of research demonstrates several positive impacts of serving local foods and providing food education through CNPs, including increased participation and engagement in meal programs; consumption of healthier options, such as whole foods; and support of local economies.

Implementation of new CACFP meal pattern changes, such as additional fruit and vegetable variety requirements, increased whole grains and reduced sugar in snacks and beverages, can all be supported with farm to early care and education activities. By using local foods, gardening experiences, and food and nutrition education, young children learn to accept and enjoy the variety of healthy foods included in the meal pattern. To read more about the role of farm to early care and education in supporting success in CACFP, see our recent blog, Celebrating Good Nutrition for Our Littlest Eaters

In addition to the final rule, the USDA will release a policy guidance document detailing CACFP best practice strategies that further support a healthy start for our youngest eaters and help create lifelong healthy habits. The policy guidance, to be released this summer, will include using seasonal and local foods in meals along with nutrition education.

In the meantime, get started on the CACFP best practice of serving local food and other farm to early care and education activities with these National Farm to School Network resources:

The new FNS rules emphasize what we continue to see in the field: CACFP and farm to early care and education are key to building the next generation of healthy eaters.    

The Results Are In: Farm to School in Early Childhood Supports Healthy Kids with Bright Futures

NFSN Staff Wednesday, April 13, 2016
By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

With 8 million children spending an average of 33 hours per week in early care and education settings, farm to school has the potential to set up a great number of young children for a lifetime of health and wellness. New survey results from the National Farm to School Network show just that: farm to school in early childhood is promoting healthy eating habits and providing high quality learning environments for thousands of children at a critical stage of development. 

In 2015, the National Farm to School Network surveyed early care and education providers across the country to better understand current initiatives, motivations and challenges in applying farm to school activities in early care and education settings. Nearly 1,500 providers serving 183,369 young children in 49 states and Washington, D.C., responded and shared insight into the important work that they are doing to connect young children to healthy, local foods and food related educational opportunities. 

We found that more than 50 percent of respondents were already incorporating farm to school activities into their early care and education settings and another 28 percent plan to start in the future. That means thousands of young children are benefiting from farm to school activities like learning where food comes from, planting and tending gardens, and eating locally grown food in meals and snacks. 

Teachers and early care providers agree that farm to school activities help create high quality learning environments that promote life long health and wellness, which are important priorities for children, providers and parents. Respondents identified these as their top three motivations for participating in farm to school:   

  • Teaches children about where food comes from and how it is grown (95%)
  • Improves children’s healthy (95%)
  • Provides children with experiential learning (94%)
One child care provider summed it up this way: “The farm to preschool movement makes our programs better in every way.” Farm to school activities are helping early care and education providers reach their goals of setting young children up for a lifetime of health and success. 

Want to learn more about the survey results and the role of farm to early care and education in supporting healthy kids and high quality educational opportunities? The National Farm to School Network has developed an infographic and fact sheet highlighting key information from the survey. A complete summary of the survey results will be available in mid-May. 

Help us reach reach more young kids, families, providers and communities with the many benefits of farm to school for all ages. Share the results of the survey with 5 people you know who care about our next generation, join the National Farm to School Network and connect with farm to school and early care and education leaders in your region. Get started by clicking below! 

Explore the results

Celebrating good nutrition for our littlest eaters

NFSN Staff Monday, March 14, 2016
By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

Credit: Taking Root Tennessee
Along with the onset of spring, March brings with it many ways to celebrate good nutrition for our littlest eaters. With warmer days comes opportunity for planting spinach and radish seeds and savoring the first tastes of sweet peas and baby greens. March is also National Nutrition Month, a time devoted to celebrating good nutrition for all, as well as National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week, a national campaign aimed at raising awareness about the benefits and importance of the USDA CACFP program. 

The CACFP program provides 1.9 billion meals and snacks to over 3.2 million children in child care centers, family child care homes and after-school programs each year. In addition to ensuring access to nutritious food for children in child care settings, the program also aims to support nutrition education and positive eating habits.

In celebration of these important awarness campaigns, we’re recognizing the work of organization like Taking Root Tennessee, which aims to influence a generation of children to be healthy eaters by exposing them to fresh, healthy foods. To do this, Taking Root Tennessee offers gardening opportunities for young children by building gardens and providing tools, technical assistance and curriculum to early care and education providers. 

For Joshua Smith, Program Coordinator, and Phillip Hester, Program Director, expanding garden education is a natural extension of the work of Taking Root Tennessee’s parent organization, Our Daily Bread of Tennessee. As a CACFP sponsor, Our Daily Bread facilitates the administration of the CACFP program to over 300 family child care homes, child care centers, at risk afterschool programs, and summer food programs, reaching nearly 10,000 children with healthy meals and snacks each day. 

The gardening experience offered by Taking Root Tennessee supports the CACFP aims of contributing to the nutrition knowledge, wellness and healthy growth of young children. As Smith notes, the CACFP meal requirements ensure children are offered fruits and vegetables, while farm to school activities, like gardening and food-related educational opportunities, make it more likely that children will actually eat and enjoy those fruits and vegetables.  

Farm to school activities offered by Taking Root Tennessee not only support the health and wellness of children, but families, early care and education providers and local growers also reap the benefits. One child in the program was so excited about gardening, and his mother so thrilled to see her child eating fresh vegetables, that the family is now in search of a home where they can put in a garden and grow vegetables for the whole family. 

Garden trainings offered by Taking Root Tennessee give early care and education providers the opportunity to expand their palates, as well. Never having tasted a bell pepper, one provider was convinced that they would be too spicy for the children in her care. After tasting the sweetness of a ripe red bell pepper at a training, she eagerly began growing them in the garden and offering them at snack time. 

As providers taste the distinct flavors of freshly grown produce and see how the children respond, they are requesting more information about how to source more fresh, local products. Smith and Hester happily point them towards farmers’ markets and connect them with local producers, increasing market opportunities for local growers. 

As Taking Root Tennessee demonstrates, farm to early care and education and CACFP can be valuable keys to allowing all children the opportunity to grow and eat healthy, local food. To learn more about getting started with farm to school activities in early care and education settings – like gardening, local procurement, and food-based activities to enhance the educational experience – download our Getting Started with Farm to Early Care and Education factsheet. Now is a great time to take actions that will help children celebrate great nutrition all year round!  

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