North Carolina's Growing Minds Farm to School Program – a project of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) – has dedicated themselves to an upstream approach to expanding farm to ECE through Growing Minds @ Community Colleges, an effort to embed farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) curriculum into soon-to-be early care providers’ education and coursework in community colleges across the state. Growing Minds provides an abundance of resources to instructors looking to incorporate farm to ECE programming into their coursework, including presentations, workshops, and a comprehensive toolkit. Gwen Hill, Growing Minds’ Program Coordinator, explained the reasoning behind the approach. “We are very focused on training the trainers because we know there will never be enough nonprofits to put a garden educator into every school. We need to educate people who are already working in preschools about the basics of farm to ECE so they can be the trainers.” This approach is not new to Growing Minds, as seen through their Growing Minds @ University program that has been running since 2011, where farm to school curriculum is built into college coursework for dietetic interns and education students.
So far, Growing Minds @ Community Colleges has been a success. The program was first piloted with Blue Ridge Community College and truly launched in 2019 in 22 of the 58 colleges in the state.Through this program they’ve been able to deepen existing relationships while building many new ones, in part due to the excitement surrounding the program. One organization, Ashe County Partnership for Children, was so excited about the mission of Growing Minds @ Community College that they reached out to Growing Minds and offered to implement the farm to ECE trainings both at their organization and at their local college, after the college explained that they didn’t have the time to implement it themselves.
Beyond its own programming, Growing Minds also co-facilitates the North Carolina Farm to Preschool Network, partnering with a coalition of organizations to promote farm to ECE statewide. “As we continue to grow the North Carolina Farm to ECE Network, we’ll continue to look for ways we can build those symbiotic relationships and tie the work we’re doing with the network with the community colleges that are imbedding this coursework,” explained Hill. Growing Minds @ Community College is also hoping to go more in depth with the community colleges they are currently working with through monthly newsletters, development of more lesson plans and resources, and providing mini-grants to students in the program who are already working in early learning programs to implement farm to ECE and provide feedback.
Even with their early success, Growing Minds @ Community College hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. COVID presented the largest challenge to the blossoming program. Early care priorities shifted with the transition to virtual learning, leading to some slowed growth. Under normal circumstances, Growing Minds would be focusing on hands-on training, taking students through activities the children in their care would be doing such as crafts, taste tests and cooking demonstrations in order to get soon to-be providers excited. However, they are not letting these challenges stop them. Hill explained how they’ve been able to stay flexible. “We’ve found some creative ways to still connect with programs and progress.” They’ve converted their trainings to virtual platforms and have tried to increase communication, sending frequent email updates and doing virtual trainings over zoom. Understanding that early learning programs can be under-resourced in general, and even more so during COVID, Growing Minds @ Community College makes a point to always look for ways to make their trainings simple and user friendly while offering as much support as they can. They also emphasize how farm to ECE can be embedded into what providers are already doing. Hill explained, “this doesn’t have to be super fancy to be effective. You can get a sweet potato for a dollar, roast it up, do a taste test and then watch a ‘meet your farmer’ video. That’s all that’s needed to get kids excited about trying new vegetables and about farming.”