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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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