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

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

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.

Starting the conversation: House hearing on child nutrition programs

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Chloe Marshall, Policy Specialist

On Tuesday, March 12, the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services within the House Education and Labor Committee held the first hearing of the new Congress on child nutrition programs, what could be the first hearing in preparation for the next Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (CNR). The “Growing a Healthy Next Generation: Examining Federal Child Nutrition Programs" hearing focused on the importance of these programs, including farm to school and how it helps children succeed in school and life.

Key topics discussed by committee members included the impact of nutrition programs on children’s access to food, regulatory challenges that school nutrition staff face, and the urgency of addressing children’s health early in life.

Witnesses included Dr. Eduardo Ochoa, the Principal Investigator for the Children’s HealthWatch Little Rock site at Arkansas Children’s Hospital; Cheryl Johnson, Director of Child Nutrition & Wellness for the Kansas State Department of Education; Donna Martin, Director Of School Nutrition Programs for Burke County Public Schools in Waynesboro, GA; and Nikki Berlew O’Meara, mother of two and member of Moms Rising. Witnesses were asked a number of questions ranging from how they’ve been navigating new nutrition standards to their thoughts on whole and flavored milk for children.

While no specific questions about farm to school were asked during the hearing, Rep. James Comer (R-KY) and Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA) acknowledged the positive impacts farm to school has made in their home states. "As a farmer myself, I understand the importance of supporting local farmers by providing school access to local farm fresh ingredients,” said Rep. Cormer. In introducing Ms. Martin, Rep. Allen noted that he's visited Burke County schools for farm to school events on several occasions. "In fact, as a member of Congress, I've never missed that event and never will - obviously you can tell, I love good food!" he said. "I've seen first hand students growing their own food there - it's incredible."

As part of her testimony, Ms. Martin shared several ways that farm to school has been an important part of child nutrition programs in Burke County. "I'm incredibly proud of our farm to school program that provides farm fresh produce to our students. We found that when we started offering local fresh produce - like collards, berries, peaches - our fruit and vegetable consumption rates doubled,” Ms. Martin said. “We are fiscally sound because we offer seasonal fresh produce. We work with the Burke County farmers to provide local fruits and vegetables at very competitive prices. I've had local farmers beating down my door to set up contracts with me. In the school nutrition world we call this a win win win - a win for the farmer, a win for the kids, and a win for our local economy.”

Donna Martin shares testimony during the "Growing a Healthy Next Generation: Examining Federal Child Nutrition Programs" hearing.

While several representatives expressed concerns about how burdensome nutrition standards seem to be for schools, Ms. Martin noted that Georgia successfully implemented nutrition standards through farm to school activities: “If kids taste it, they will eat it. If kids grow it, they will eat it. If kids cook it, they will eat it. It's all about getting kids involved, and you have to do nutrition education.”

In closing the hearing, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) noted that with child nutrition programs, "Congress has consistently recognized through bipartisan support that a quality education includes making sure that every child has access to healthy and nutritious food." She specifically named farm to school as one of the programs that helps make this happen.

National Farm to School Network was pleased to hear praise for farm to school in the hearing. It’s a promising sign of opportunity for the farm to school movement as this critical legislation is developed. Additionally, the positive response to farm to school signals recognition of the important role it plays in the success of all of the other child nutrition programs.

While CNR is intended to be reauthorized every five years, it has been nearly 10 years since the last reauthorization. Known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the last (and current) CNR has provided monumental support for the farm to school movement by legislating the creation of the USDA Farm to School Program, which provides annual competitive grants and technical assistance to help schools, farmers, non-profits, state agencies and other entities implement and expand farm to school activities across the country. Since the first grants were awarded in FY 2013, demand for the highly successful program has been more than four times higher than available yearly funding. Opportunities to make the program accessible to more communities with an increase in annual funding is one of the policy initiatives the National Farm to School Network is exploring as we prepare for this next CNR.

What other ways can the next CNR support your farm to school efforts? We want to know! Join one of our upcoming CNR Listening Sessions, beginning March 19, to share your thoughts and ideas for our future CNR policy initiatives. And, make sure you’re subscribed to our e-newsletter to receive updates and action alerts as the CNR process continues.

The National Farm to School Network and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition are partnering to advance farm to school priorities in the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization, with the shared goal of supporting stronger communities, healthier children and resilient farms.

FoodSpan: Teaching the food system farm to fork

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Guest post by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

While public interest in where our food comes from continues to grow, there is a dearth of resources available for teaching young people about the food system. That’s a key reason the FoodSpan curriculum created by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future has hit the mark with a lot of educators, especially those teaching social studies, science, and family and consumer sciences, but also health and language arts.

As of March 1, FoodSpan lesson plans had been downloaded nearly 57,000 times. This free online curriculum contains 17 lesson plans that span the food system from production through consumption and also includes lessons on food waste, food safety and food policy. It culminates with a food citizen action project, which gives students an opportunity to put their new knowledge to work by designing an intervention to address a food system problem.

“FoodSpan provides the materials and lessons necessary for our students to investigate critical issues surrounding public health, equity in food resources, sustainability, and the environment,” said Mike Wierzbicki, a social studies teacher at North County High School in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. “The lesson plans are filled with tremendous visuals that capture student attention and promote a deep understanding of material.”

FoodSpan dovetails well with the work of the National Farm to School Network, which works to empowers children and their families to make informed food choices.

This inquiry-based curriculum is designed for high school students but has been frequently adapted for use at both higher and lower education levels. It is written at a ninth-grade reading level. FoodSpan lessons also align with national education standards including NGSS, NCSS, CCSS for English Language Arts & Literacy, and NHES.

Teachers can use FoodSpan in its entirety, or pick and choose lessons they think will be most relevant or engaging for their students. The most downloaded lesson is the introductory “Exploring Our Food System.” It gets students thinking about food in a systemic way, for example by following food items through the supply chain, and by looking at relationships among myriad players in the food system, including people, institutions, and natural resources. Lessons on crops and on the industrialization of agriculture are also among the most popular.

The curriculum includes 140 activities, including 62 extension activities. Among many other things, students are challenged to:

  • Assess the food environment in their school
  • Create food maps
  • Devise educational and advertising campaigns
  • Develop presentations for policy makers
  • Investigate a foodborne illness outbreak
  • Debate controversial food system topics
  • Journal about their personal views after each lesson
  • Produce art projects (e.g., posters, infographics, videos)
  • Watch and discuss food-related films

Teachers who want to get up to speed on a food system topic before presenting it to their students can benefit from CLF’s Food System Primer, which offers short readings on many topics, along with links to further reading. Teachers can also point students to this resource, particularly if they have been assigned to write a report on a food system topic.

CLF also maintains a Food System Lab in a Baltimore greenhouse, providing “real-world examples of solutions to these pressing issues” in the food system, as Wierzbicki put it. The Lab uses its aquaponics and composting projects as jumping-off points to discuss larger food system topics.

The Center for a Livable Future (CLF) has been a leader in “food system thinking” for more than 20 years. CLF teaches about the food system, both at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and through online courses available to the public. It has produced a textbook called Introduction to the U.S. Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity.

Learn more about the FoodSpan curriculum here.

Gearing up for Child Nutrition Reauthorization in 2019

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

By Chloe Marshall, Policy Specialist

“Our kids deserve healthy food!”
“School lunch is important because we need to eat and be healthier.”
“Feed the future with real, healthy meals!”

After having passed a farm bill and confirming this year’s budget, our congressional leaders are discussing the possible return of a major opportunity for farm to school advocates - the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (CNR). On Jan. 28, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry announced to the National School Board Association that “if we can put politics aside...there is a clear pathway for child nutrition programs to be reauthorized yet this year.” With this announcement, we find ourselves gearing up for what could be another journey to defend nutrition standards, increase funding for school meals, and of course, pave the way for embedding farm to school practices in our food system. Here’s our reflection on where CNR stands now and what we can do moving forward as a network:

What is a CNR?
The Child Nutrition Act reauthorization (or CNR for short) authorizes federal school meal and child nutrition programs including the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, among others (see table below). The last CNR, known as the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, was groundbreaking for farm to school stakeholders nationwide. For the first time, the legislation supported farm to school directly by providing $5 million in annual mandatory funding for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to School Grant Program. A major victory for the National Farm to School Network and farm to school champions across the country, this program funds competitive grants and technical assistance for farm to school activities that increase the use of and improve access to local foods in schools. Policies like this ensure more schools across the nation have a pathway to practicing farm to school, even if their local district hasn’t shown support yet.

Programs Included in CNR: School Breakfast Program (SBP)
National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
Farm to School Grant Program
Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP)
Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP)
Summer Food Service Program (SFSP)

The package of bills that make up CNR is meant to be reauthorized every five years, but irreconcilable differences between House and Senate versions of bills prevented this from happening in 2016. As the National Farm to School Network prepares for a possible return of CNR this year, we want to hear your voice! As our name implies, we are truly a national network of stakeholders, and our policy agenda is driven by advocates like you. We invite you to join one of our CNR Listening Sessions, beginning March 19, where you can weigh in on our future CNR policy initiatives.

What Can You Do to Prepare for CNR?

Right now:

In the near future:

  • Prepare your asks - as a constituent, what actions do you want to see from your legislators as CNR is debated?
  • Cultivate your legislative champions

If and when the Reauthorization takes place:

  • Provide feedback to the National Farm to School Network
  • Contact your legislators

Have questions about CNR or want to learn more about how you can be a farm to school policy advocate? Contact Chloe Marshall, Policy Specialist, at chloe@farmtoschool.org.