AHA, Cooperative Extension and Wake County SmartStart shared information about the Farm to Child Care Pilot in early October at the Natural Learning Initiative’s Design Institute for child care center directors.
Shucking corn, shelling peas and snapping beans were among the tasks—and learning processes—some young children had this summer at ABC Land’s child care centers in Zebulon and Wendell. After they learned a bit about where food comes from and helped the centers’ cook prep these veggies, then they got to eat them.
It was all part of a 9-week Farm to Child Care pilot conducted by AHA and partners Wake County Cooperative Extension and Wake County SmartStart (WCSS) through a planning and assessment grant funded by the John Rex Endowment.
Farm to Child Care is a strategy to reduce overweight and obesity in our youngest children by increasing the number and types of fresh produce children eat each day, and it is also an important way to support the local economy and local farmers. In addition to the child care centers, local farmers and The Produce Box participated in the pilot by supplying the centers with local produce.
More than 700 children and staff at eight child care centers serving low-income children in Wake County enjoyed a variety of local produce for snacks and meals for the first time as part of AHA’s Farm to Child Care pilot.
Despite some challenges, the consensus among the centers is that the pilot was a great success with children and staff enjoying many different seasonal local fruits and vegetables. “The kids had so much fun. They were unsure about figs and beets, but they were willing to try them because the girls loved the color of the beets, as one example,” said Lorraine Dixon, director at ABC Land.
The directors shared some of the strengths of the pilot, including making the connection with a local farmer, teachers modeling for the children because some were not used to eating some fresh fruits and veggies, and exposure to a lot of food the kids would not have tried otherwise. For The Goddard School in Fuquay-Varina the pilot was the impetus for planting cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers in its raised garden beds. They supplemented the locally sourced foods with their own garden harvest. The centers also learned how to prepare some produce differently so the children would eat it.
For example, at Raleigh Nursery School, they began including sprite melon in fruit cups featuring watermelon and peaches. Another center learned that the kids did not like raw okra, but when the cook roasted it, the children ate it all. “It was exciting to see the kids eating real food,” said Carla Wahdan, director of The Goddard School.
One of the key findings of the pilot is that despite perceptions, local produce does not necessarily cost more than fresh produce, although fresh is more costly than frozen and canned. Local produce also requires more staff time for preparation. In the few cases where the local produce cost more, it was a minor price difference.
Children shelled peas at ABC Land, a child care center participating in AHA’s Farm to Child Care pilot. It was a great lesson in where food comes from!
Center directors also shared that they were surprised by how engaged the families were in this experience with very little effort put forward by the centers. AHA and its partners on the project had supplied centers with a colorful recipe card for a seasonal vegetable that was being served in the centers, such as cucumbers, and this complimented an “I tried local cucumbers” sticker that children wore home that day. We learned that more resources for parents will be helpful to keep them engaged and to educate them about how to prepare local, fresh produce.
The tremendous amount of rain as the pilot got underway greatly impacted the farmers, which then meant centers had to adjust menus and, in some cases, shop local farmers’ markets to be able to serve local produce. The centers adapted and also learned about what is in season in North Carolina and how to prepare and serve different foods to the children.
Farm to Preschool
The Farm to Preschool movement to connect young children with local foods is taking off. Farm to Preschool includes any type of child care that incorporates local foods through meals and snacks, taste tests, lessons, farmer visits, cooking, field trips, growing food or community and parent engagement. October 18 is Farm to Preschool Day, and several of the centers that participated in the pilot over the summer will celebrate with special activities.
Children at Raleigh Nursery School will plant collards, cabbage and lettuce in the new raised beds at the center with farmer Bennie Glenn of Genesis Farms in Holly Springs. He had supplied the center and several others with local produce during the pilot. Raleigh Nursery School is also participating in the Preventing Obesity by Design project headed up by the Natural Learning Initiative in partnership with Wake SmartStart and others. The raised beds are part of the redesigned outdoor learning environment (OLE) at the center.
Farmer Angie Inge Horn from Wendell will bring a trailer load of pumpkins and sweet potatoes to Cathie Lee Child Development Center in Knightdale. The children will pick out a pumpkin for their classroom and to take home, and they will learn about how pumpkins grow, and touch and feel the insides and the seeds.
Ongoing Farm to Child Care Work
AHA, Cooperative Extension and WCSS plan to apply for an implementation grant to continue Farm to Child Care. In addition, all the centers are interested in continuing to offer local produce as they can this fall.