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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.”  

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! 

Local Sourcing for Childcare: A Recipe for Farm to ECE Success

NFSN Staff Monday, March 18, 2019
In celebration of National CACFP Week, the National Farm to School Network is launching a series of blogs devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. The Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series will feature guest writers highlighting farm to ECE procurement successes from across the country. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at lacy@farmtoschool.org


By Maire Dekle,  Common Market

Butternut squash and honeycrisp apple soup. Free-range chicken quesadillas. Fresh-baked rainbow carrot whole-wheat muffins. 

Hungry yet? This is just a sampling of the scratch-cooked, locally sourced food children at The Caring Center get to enjoy each day!

Chef Erica Lewis and her kitchen crew serve up morning snack, lunch, and afternoon snack for about 170 children at this early care program, located in West Philadelphia. The Caring Center has long had a commitment to serving healthy, home-cooked meals, but as many food service professionals could attest, there can be all kinds of challenges: from limited cold-storage space for fresh produce and meat, to the additional prep time and labor required, to the legwork needed to identify quality ingredients (sustainably produced, minimally processed, and ideally, locally sourced). 

Erica and The Caring Center partner with The Common Market, a nonprofit local food distributor based in Philadelphia, to help lighten that legwork and source sustainable produce, meat, grains, and more. The Common Market works with a network of family-owned farms in the Mid-Atlantic, teaming up with producers to source, aggregate, and distribute their products to food service staff like Erica.

In just the last three months, The Caring Center has sourced more than 3,500 pounds of food from local producers, supporting dozens of small- and mid-sized family farms within our region. Ground turkey, chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, and the much-loved Honeycrisp apples have been among the top items, and feedback has been very positive. (One child even tried chicken for the first time…and discovered he liked it!)

How does The Caring Center make local sourcing work for them? Erica identifies where farm-fresh foods will have the greatest impact, be most cost-effective, and meet parents’ requests: antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and turkey; produce in peak season; whole wheat flours. She sources other items from broadline distributors, bread and milk distributors, and occasionally retailers. The Caring Center participates in the Child & Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), receiving reimbursement for meals. At this point, Erica and her assistant Tammy have mastered their CACFP-compliant recipes, recording, and reporting.

Additionally, thanks to grant funding, The Common Market is able to offer a discount to child care providers, with the goal of building capacity around local food sourcing and preparation. Chefs like Erica who have the skills and know-how to work with fresh ingredients gain new experience in local sourcing — and can pass those skills on to other ECE staff.

The Caring Center’s farm to ECE commitment continues beyond the kitchen. At family-style meals in their classrooms, children are encouraged to try new foods: from Brussels sprouts to blueberries, acorn squash to new apple varieties. Posted profiles of featured farmers provide more information for families and staff about where their children’s food is coming from. Farm to ECE programming on-site includes Erica’s cooking classes and gardening. (This past summer’s crop featured cantaloupes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, basil…and one watermelon!)

Erica and The Caring Center have demonstrated that they are local sourcing superstars. They consider quality food service to be an integral part of their program, with local foods as a part of their appeal. But what are their additional secret ingredients for farm to ECE success? For local sourcing to be a sustainable part of a center’s food program, food service staff and leadership must have the passion and intent to make healthier, more sustainable choices for the children they serve. 

We’ve also seen that this work needs to be built on a foundation of staff expertise around both nutrition and budgeting. Erica has been in food service for 25 years (at The Caring Center for 18!) and acknowledges that she has her cooking and administrative work down to a well-organized system, making the most out of the kitchen space and equipment she has. Having that experience gives her room to experiment and take on new challenges — and opportunities. 

Erica has recently started training other child care staff and directors through the Action for Early Learning Alliance in West Philadelphia. She’s sharing how to set up kitchens, where to source quality ingredients, and how to stay CACFP-compliant while offering nutritious, delicious food. Her ultimate goal? 

“I want to show that they don’t have to go the way of offering processed foods with lots of additives. We can get better food for our children in the city of Philadelphia.”

The Caring Center is an early childhood education provider for children 6 weeks to 8 years old, nationally accredited through the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and rated Keystone STAR 4. The Common Market Mid-Atlantic is a mission-driven distributor of sustainable, local farm foods, connecting institutions and communities with good food from over 200 producers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. 


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