What if a child care center could cut in half the number of canned fruits and vegetables it serves for meals and snacks by replacing them with fresh, local produce?
Childcare Network #61 in Raleigh has cut its use of canned foods by more than one half by growing and buying NC produce.
That’s exactly what Childcare Network #61 on Western Blvd. in Raleigh has done over the last year, and then some. According to Director Wanda Davis, the center is saving money and, perhaps, more importantly, shaping healthy eating habits and growing a love for fresh fruits and vegetables among the 170 children and 28 staff served by the center.
In the past, Davis said they opened up to 12 #10 cans (6 lbs) of fruit or a vegetable per day, and now they are only opening 4 cans by using the vegetables and fruit from their garden and participating in Farm to Child Care. “We grew green beans and also purchased some from our farmer, so we didn’t open any canned green beans this summer. Six cans come in a case, and it’s about $32. It’s expensive to buy those large cans. We know we reduced our costs because we grew the beans and went from spending over $30 to just $10-$15. And they didn’t have any of the added sodium,” Davis said.
Director Wanda Davis in the garden at Childcare Network. Children love weighing their fruits and vegetables on the scale!
Under Davis’ direction, Childcare Network participated in the Natural Learning Initiative’s Preventing Obesity by Design project; through this 3-year effort Davis, her staff and the NLI team transformed the outdoor play are into an outdoor learning environment that includes multiple raised beds, container gardens and garden beds.
Earlier this year, Childcare Network began participating in Farm to Child Care, led by Wake County SmartStart with partners AHA and Wake County Cooperative Extension. Through Farm to Child Care, Davis is purchasing North Carolina grown fruits and vegetables for meals and snacks. Participating centers have a range of options for buying NC produce, and Davis purchases her produce from farmer Robert Jones. “We’ve been so fortunate to marry the two programs at our school; they fit very well together,” Davis said. “And the children just love it. If they grow it, they taste it. I haven’t had one child yet dislike what they’ve tasted from the garden.”
With her Assistant Director Corinne Brylski and cook Inez DeJesus, Davis had set a goal to reduce the number of cans in half. Several years ago, she was purchasing over 2000 cans in a year. With the garden’s bounty and Farm to Child Care, she has been able to exceed her goal. Davis said they started gradually by serving at least one meal a day that was can-free.
Getting Families Involved
Making and eating eggplant pizzas–two of the children’s favorite things to do!
What’s more, the children, teachers and families are all enjoying the fresh fare. Davis has worked with her farmer to set up a farmers’ market once a month at the center (typically the third Thursday of the month from 3-6 pm but on Oct. 29 this month instead) so families can shop when they pick up their children.
“Our families absolutely love the monthly farmers’ market. It has kept some of them from going to the grocery store, and others have tried new things. One father had never had a sweet potato before. He tried it and said it was just the best thing he had ever had—so naturally sweet,” Davis said. “Parents love what we are doing her with the fresh, local food because they feel they cannot always do it at home. Some families tell me that is why they have enrolled their kids here—after they learn on our tour about what we’re doing, they want their children to be here.”
Children not only help plant, water and harvest the produce from the garden, but they also help prepare foods for the cook, and in some cases, make their own snacks. Davis purchased a dehydrator, which the children use regularly to make their own snacks, like apple chips. The children love kale chips they make regularly, and they also enjoy making and eating eggplant pizzas. One day the children compared the pizza from Childcare Network’s food distributor to the eggplant pizzas they made and voted on which they liked best; their own eggplant pizzas were the winner.
Anyone who visits the garden is invited to pick some produce to taste or take home, as well. The farmers’ market, the garden and recipe cards for parents are some of the ways Davis is encouraging families to eat more healthfully at home too. Families will be able to taste NC produce from the farm and the garden on October 29 at Childcare Network’s Oktoberfest celebration too.
“There are so many teachable moments with these fresh foods. We can ignite these children in imagination and conversation about these healthy items,” Davis said. “They are learning colors, and learning to weight and measure and compare things,” she continued.
Davis has been in early childhood education for more than 30 years and at Childcare Network for the last six years; she is pioneering these fresh, healthy efforts. “I told my staff we’re doing this. It’s good for the children, and it’s good for us.”
Nov. 4 Information Session
Wake County SmartStart and partners will host an information session about Farm to Child Care on Nov. 4, 12:30-2:30 pm at Wake County SmartStart’s building. Child care directors in Wake County interested in learning more and applying for the 2016 program are welcome; RSVP to Lynn Policastro by Monday, 11/2. Any child care facility in Wake County can explore the Farm to Child Care Toolkit and begin purchasing local produce, but a limited number of centers will be accepted for the program for 2016 and receive a cost-share benefit to help defray some costs, such as equipment, staff time, etc. Applications will be available in November.