Preschool's Farm & Food Partnerships Keep Kids Eating Local

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Photo credit: Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center, taken in 2019.

Guest blog by NC Farm to Early Care & Education, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems

Based in Silk Hope, North Carolina, Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center (Sonflower Seeds) has cared for children from 6 weeks old to age 12 for the past 15 years. Silk Hope is a small rural community near the Triangle of NC and beyond their play area lies 500 acres of pasture. Sonflower Seeds has been a leader in their county for many years for their support of local food and farms.

Though the number of children at the Center has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonflower continues to serve many children of farmers, paramedics, police, and other essential workers. We spoke with Heidi Lineberry, Sonflower Seeds’ Director, to learn how sourcing local food has allowed them to continue serving nutritious meals to the children throughout the pandemic while supporting farmers nearby.

The NC Farm to ECE Initiative, facilitated by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, works with early childhood facilities and their communities to purchase local food and provide children with experiential learning around local food. The Farm to ECE Collaborative organizes community teams throughout North Carolina to connect food and early childhood systems.

Sonflower Seeds has been part of the Collaborative for a few years now. In 2019, with support from NC Farm to ECE, Sonflower Seeds formalized their commitment to local food by implementing a center policy that they serve fresh produce five days a week.

Sonflower Seeds’ dedication to sourcing locally began about eight years ago, when Heidi realized that she could have milk and other dairy products delivered from a local dairy, Homeland Creamery, rather than using staff time and gas for hauling 20+ gallons of milk from the grocery store every week. They also source most of their produce locally from Red Roots Farm, Okfuskee Farm, and Kildee Farm, eggs from Edell’s Eggs, apples and berries from Millstone Creek Orchards, and ground beef from Smithview Farm. Several of these farmers have children or grandchildren who attend Sonflower Seeds. Heidi connected with other farmers through word of mouth or recommendations from other farmers.

Sourcing food from local farmers as well as having a garden on site, has benefited Sonflower Seeds in many ways, including:

Product availability even during emergencies: Sonflower Seeds’ existing connections with local farmers has allowed them to serve nutritious, local foods without disruption even when other centers in their area have struggled to find milk and other products during the pandemic. They were already well accustomed to ordering and delivering procedures and local suppliers prioritized Sonflower Seeds as loyal customers.

Child nutrition, experiential learning, and family engagement: Heidi believes serving nutritious local foods is part of their commitment to caring for the “whole child.” When produce is delivered, children get to know the farmers by name and learn that real people in their community grow their food. Sonflower also hosts a pop-up farmers market for parents to meet the farmers and learn how the food is produced. When the center receives carrots with the greens on, children learn which part grows below the ground and which part above and practice preparing fresh produce with child-friendly utensils. The children also love to walk through the center’s strawberry patch, and parents are interested in helping in the garden too.  

When the egg farmer has fewer eggs during the winter, the center overcomes this by slightly altering their menus and uses this as a learning opportunity to share with the children how it’s natural for chickens to take a break from laying eggs in the wintertime. One of the farmer's children was excited to share when his family got more chicks and to tell his friends they’d have more eggs soon!

Food quality and taste
: The local produce is fresh and delicious. Sonflower Seeds offers taste tests for the children and many opportunities to try new foods, and has seen the children become more adventurous. Children might not eat cooked spinach, but will pluck the leaves and eat them raw from the garden.

Marketing: Sourcing locally has helped Sonflower Seeds to attract new families too. They send out a questionnaire to new families about children’s dietary needs and preferences and promote their participation in Farm to ECE so parents know it is a priority. They display a Farm to ECE poster provided by the Collaborative on a fence outside of the building. This year alone, Sonflower Seeds added five new families because of their commitment to local foods.

Heidi says, “The Farm to ECE Collaborative has grown our Center. It has helped us to see that a little bit of what we were already doing can be done on a broader scale, it helped turn us into a niche program by putting into policy that we serve fresh and local fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, and promoting it. Once you put things out there more things come to you.”

The Center receives wholesale pricing from many of the local producers and says their monthly Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) reimbursement more than covers the costs of local and organic foods. She also learned that CACFP offers reimbursement for plants, seeds, and vegetables grown by the Center.

Heidi says she really enjoys the Farm to ECE Collaborative and the energetic staff, so much so that she decided to become one of seven mentors for other centers in North Carolina. As a co-leader of an Affinity group for center directors, Heidi helps to facilitate monthly meetings to discuss food and gardening and support other centers in meeting their Farm to ECE goals. The Chatham County Partnership for Children and their Child Care Health Consultant, Dorothy Rawleigh, has also helped Sonflower Seeds with connecting with farmers, other centers nearby, and purchasing materials for raised bed gardens.

“So much of children’s time is spent eating, why not make the quality of the food a priority?” Heidi’s advice for other centers considering Farm to ECE: “You have to be willing to do trial and error. Try to meet a farmer every month, and be willing to collaborate with other directors nearby. Just give it a try!”

Interested in getting started with sourcing locally? Check out these local food purchasing resources from the NC Farm to ECE Initiative.

USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program and Local Food

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

On Friday, April 17, USDA announced the USDA Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. While there is still much unknown about how the program will be implemented, it may be an opportunity for local product to make its way to emergency feeding programs, addressing a vital need for market opportunities for local producers and food access needs in communities. The program aims to support producers and consumers with two approaches:

  • Direct Support for Farmers and Ranchers
  • USDA Purchase and Distribution

What You Need to Know

  • Direct Support for Farmers and Ranchers - USDA is in the process of developing rules for how support will be distributed and who will be eligible. NFSN and partners are working to ensure all farmers are able to access this program by pushing USDA to target local and regional producers and to outline the measures it will take to equitably include producers of color. What you can do: We anticipate a brief rulemaking process to direct how this money will be distributed. We encourage partners to be prepared to submit comments. We also encourage partners to work with their state departments of agriculture to put pressure on USDA to commit to the measures the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition outlines.
  • USDA Purchase and Distribution - On Friday, April 24, USDA opened solicitations (view RFP here) for regional and local distributors who can coordinate purchase of agricultural products, the assembly of commodity boxes and delivery to identified non-profit organizations that can receive, store and distribute food items. Included in the application is a request for applicants to describe how they intend to support small farmers and those serving local and regional markets. Applicants are also responsible for identifying non-profit organizations for distribution, and this could potentially include schools and early care sites. What you can do: Share relevant information (see links below) with local food hubs, intermediaries, producers, and relevant food businesses. Awardees are expected to capitalize on exisiting networks and relationships, so this is a vital opportunity for local and regional food networks to activitate local distribution chains.  

Additional Resources and Information

Reflections from our Executive Director: Farm to School & COVID-19

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

"There's beautiful resiliency in the community food systems that have been built... and we also know that there's a lot of work left to be done. I'm committed to responding to this moment in ways that are going to set us up for a more just food system tomorrow." - Helen Dombalis, Executive Director of the National Farm to School Network

Celebrating the Week of the Young Child with Farm to ECE - Social Distancing & Family Friendly Activities

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Sadé Collins, Programs Fellow

We recognize that during this unprecedented time, early care and education providers are making adjustments to meet the demand of local COVID-19 response efforts. That may mean limiting the number of children sites serve, changing activities to adhere to safety and social distancing guidelines, or halting business altogether, but providing families with tools and resources to support young children at home. With this in mind, National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is committed to supporting you and providing resources to help you think of ways to stay engaged. In our Week of the Young Child celebration recommendations, we’ve identified activities that are appropriate for safety and social distance measures during this time (SD Friendly) and also activities that work well to support families with resources or education activities (Family Friendly).

The Week of the Young Child™ (April 11-17, 2020) is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). The purpose of the Week of the Young Child™ (WOYC) is to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs. National Farm to School Network is excited for another fun-filled week celebrating young children and their families! See below opportunities for farms to ECE activities during WOYC that support ECE providers in creating learning environments that align with NAEYC Program Standards and can be social distancing (SD) and family friendly.

Kick-Off Saturday: Host a collaborative kick-off.  Share ideas and prepare for a week of celebration.

  • Establish your site as an access point for families to purchase and learn about healthy, local foods by becoming a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)/food box pick-up site. (Family Friendly)
  • Join an on-line learning and discussion community to share ideas and find support from others in the ECE community. (SD Friendly)
  • Replenish your arts and crafts supply for Artsy Thursday. (SD and Family Friendly)

Music Monday: Turn gardening into a routine.

  • Turn on the music and start every garden time with a musical warm up. Simple garden activities can be set up as an obstacle course using old plant pots and then have students weave in and out of the pots. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Encourage children to engage in “seed yoga” to music. Invite children to curl into a ball to pretend to be a seed, then guide them through movements of unfurling and stretching along with the rhythm as they “grow roots,” “send out leaves,” and “grow flowers and fruit”.  (SD and Family Friendly)

Tasty Tuesday:  Conduct a taste testing activity to allow children to try new or unfamiliar food.

  • Set up taste tests of local ingredients and food from the garden or local grocer and try a new recipe at home. (Family Friendly)
  • Create a recipe book using images the children draw and share the book with family. (SD and Family Friendly)

Work Together Wednesday: Build together, celebrate together.*

  • Engage in self-initiated sensory table play with a variety of kitchen tools (e.g., measuring cups and spoons, colanders, sifters). Be sure to sanitize tools. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Create a space for tiny helpers to make cooking with toddlers easy and fun. (Family Friendly)
  • Children can work together in small groups with sanitized tools and help with starting a vegetable garden. (SD and Family Friendly)

Artsy Thursday: Grow green thumbs with simple gardening crafts.

  • Children can draw pictures about their time in the garden or a farm field trip and create class books about their experiences. (SD and Family Friendly)  
  • Provide clothing, props, and puppets that allow children to transform themselves into roles such as farmers, gardeners, and grocers. (Family Friendly)
  • Create handmade books to document stages of plant growth, areas of the garden during different times. (SD and Family Friendly)

Family Friday: Promote and enhance family and parent engagement.

  • Send recipes home (via email) to engage families; highlight a seasonal fruit or vegetable. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Consider hosting a virtual event where parents can learn about how to cook or prepare food with children at home by using local produce. (SD and Family Friendly)
  • Invite parents and family members to share their experience and expertise in farming, gardening, cooking, and other food and agriculture related activities via a newsletter. (SD Friendly)

While farm to ECE initiatives are an impactful approach for programs and educators, local-level and state-level farm to ECE initiatives can also support policy, system and environmental change. Building opportunities for farm to ECE initiatives can align with NAEYC state affiliate strategic plans and goals. Read more about how partner states are leveraging farm to ECE in our 2019 WOYC blog.

Now more than ever, we hope that we can all take this important week to recognize and celebrate the important role that ECE, particularly ECE providers, take in our community and find new and innovative ways to support young children and their families. You can find more resources to celebrate Week of the Young Child from NAEYC and can find more ways to grow farm to early care and education from the National Farm to School Network.

*Per CDC guidelines, “Do not share toys with other groups of infants or toddlers, unless they are washed and sanitized before being moved from one group to the other.”

Farm to School Efforts During COVID-19 Highlight Resilient Community Food Systems

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Local apples and pears being packed with school meals in West Virginia.

By Jenileigh Harris, Program Associate, and Lacy Stephens, Senior Program Manager

During this devastating crisis, we are witnessing the opportunity and strength of resilient community food systems. Communities with strong local foods infrastructure and relationships already in place are able to respond and adapt to this crisis. NFSN Partners and farm to school advocates are speaking up about how they’re supporting farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) efforts by working to feed and educate children and youth while supporting local farmers and supply chains.

Every community is finding what works best for getting meals to students and families while supporting local producers. In some cases, school meals are being packaged and provided to students via school bus delivery routes while others are offered as a grab-n-go and curbside pick-up option at community sites such as schools or churches. In rural areas, some school districts are experimenting with at-home deliveries. Many farm to school state networks are using technology and social media like Slack and Facebook to connect and support producers in accessing additional markets.

The Common Market, a mission-driven distributor of regional farm products, is partnering with farmer and grower networks, school districts and other organizations in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Texas to provide local food to sites serving grab-n-go feeding offerings to children and youth as well as seniors, families and communities in need. In New York, they partnered with Red Rabbit, a meal provider to New York City and surrounding areas, to deliver local apples to Harlem school meal sites. In New Jersey, they partnered with Newark Public Schools to deliver 160 cases of Frecon Farms apples to Newark school meal sites.

The Common Market preparing Farm Fresh Boxes for New Jersey communities.

In West Virginia, the Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition has been working with local producers to disseminate local apples and pears to counties administering school meals. That includes meals served at over 505 school and community center sites across the state and meal delivery along school bus routes. Local producers send a list of available items to the Office of Child Nutrition on a weekly basis which is then sent to all 55 counties. Within the last week, West Virginia has relied on strong existing relationships to establish an extremely responsive local food system feedback loop. When a county ran out of fruit last week, a local food distributor was able to drop off local apples the next day.

In Alabama, the Farm Food Collaborative has been working with schools and producers to ensure the bounty of local strawberries is incorporated into grab-n-go school meals. One school district has already committed to serve local strawberries in their bagged meals and the Farm Food Collaborative is working on contracting with seven more districts.

NFSN Partners have also been working to ensure gardening as well as food and agriculture education continue while students are at home. Several states, including Ohio, North Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin are sending donated seed packets and grow kits home with kids in coordination with the emergency feeding programs. At some school meal pick-up locations in West Virginia, SNAP-Ed educators are dropping off grow kits with food service staff to get packed with the lunches while mailing seed packets to families based on requests gathered on Facebook. In Vermont, seed packets are being distributed along with meals and a list of aggregated resources from KidsGardening to parents and educators who may be looking for garden-based activities to tackle with their kids and students. In Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association is supplying seeds to open ECE sites along with additional growing supplies, instructions and an idea sheet for ECE educators.

Microgreen grow kits prepared by West Virginia SNAP-Ed educators to be included with school meals.

In Montana, teachers are encouraged to use the state’s Harvest of the Month videos to supplement students’ at-home gardening and agriculture lessons. And, at one school in Oregon, a webcam has been set up on the school’s chicken coop and bee hives with live broadcasting on the school website to support teachers leading lessons virtually.

While every state and locale has their own set of practices that works best for their community’s needs, a few key takeaways have emerged from our Partners. States are having success incorporating local food into emergency feeding programs when existing relationships between schools and producers are strong and when lines of communication remain open between both parties. Many Partners describe functioning as a liaison between food service staff and producers, ensuring both know what is available and what is needed on a weekly basis. When incorporating local food into grab-n-go meals, Partners have learned it is easiest to source products that require minimal prep and limited refrigeration such as strawberries, apples, oranges, pears, cherry tomatoes, peas, or carrot sticks.

Communities have had success supporting families and educators in their efforts to continue food and agriculture education by leveraging existing farm to school/ECE resources, partnerships and infrastructures for resource compilation and dissemination. NFSN continues to update our compiled list of resources as they are shared with us. Please contact Lacy Stephens, Senior Program Manager at or Jenileigh Harris, Program Associate at to share what is working in your communities to continue farm to school efforts and support local producers.