Farm to ECE Opportunities in North Alabama
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 firstname.lastname@example.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.”
Farm to School and National Agriculture in the Classroom
By Elizabeth Esparza, Communications Intern
Food and agriculture education is a core element of farm to school and is vital to developing comprehensive and impactful farm to school programs. The National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization (NAITCO) and its member state programs, such as the Healthy Communities of the Capital Area (HCCA) in Maine, provide K-12 teachers with educational resources and programs that use agricultural concepts to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, and more.
Education is a priority area for farm to school, making NAITCO and HCCA natural and ideal partners for increasing farm to school efforts at both the national and state level. The National Agriculture in the Classroom Organization is a national nonprofit aimed at working in K-12 education to increase agricultural literacy, the ability to understand and communicate the source and value of agriculture as it affects our quality of life. They work with agriculture programs in most of the 50 states and D.C. to provide resources and standards-based lesson plans and activities. In 2017 alone, NAITCO reached 7.3 million students and 118,000 teachers in K-12, and uses their state partnerships and national conference to demonstrate agriculture related lessons to K-12 classroom teachers from around the US.
Florida Agriculture in the Classroom (FAITC), in partnership with the Florida Nutrition and Wellness Program works to increase agriculture education by holding teacher workshops together throughout the state.FAITC demonstrates K-12 lessons and activities, while FNW’s Chef Paula talks about food and garden harvest, safety, and demonstrates simple recipes that teachers can prepare in the classroom. Together, the two organizations partner to hold a statewide recipe contest to further promote each groups’ programs and increase agricultural education throughout Florida.
Maine Agriculture in the Classroom (MAITC), a part of the Maine Department of Agriculture, works to promote the understanding of agriculture and natural resources among students, educators, and the general public. MAITC works closely with Maine Farm to School Network (MFSN) to further increase the reach of the resources, trainings, and conferences available to teachers. MAITC offers grant support to teachers for a broad range of farm to school activities, which provide teachers with training and resources to help start and maintain school gardens, bring agriculture activities to their classrooms, and attend conferences
In addition to helping educators attend the MFSN conference, MAITC works to increase access to resources that enhance farm to school activities in their classrooms and schools. The Read ME Ag program enlists volunteers to read a new book written each year about Maine agriculture.
To learn more about the opportunities and benefits of partnerships between agriculture in the classroom and farm to school, watch a recording of our May 2019 Trending Topics Webinar: Farm to School and National Agriculture in the Classroom.
Announcing Our New Executive Director
By Jessica Gudmundson, Interim Executive Director, and Miguel Villarreal, Advisory Board Chair
In December 2018, the National Farm to School Network Advisory Board announced the beginning of an Executive Director search to identify the next leader of the National Farm to School Network. After an extensive search process led by members of the Advisory Board, we are pleased to announce that Helen Dombalis has been selected as Executive Director, beginning May 15, 2019.
The Transition Committee received more than 100 applications from candidates across the country for the Executive Director position. Over the past five months, the committee conducted a rigorous and thorough process of reviewing these applications and holding multiple stages of interviews with numerous well-qualified candidates. National Farm to School Network staff and Core and Supporting Partners also participated and provided feedback during various stages of this process.
With significant consideration given to the skills, experiences and expertise needed to successfully guide the National Farm to School Network in its next phase of growth, the Advisory Board has selected Helen Dombalis to serve in this important leadership role. Helen’s current position as National Farm to School Network’s Senior Director of Program and Policy - and nearly ten-year history of working with NFSN and partner organizations - have distinguished her as a nationally recognized leader in cultivating equitable food systems through strategic farm to school partnerships and policy advocacy. Helen’s farm to school expertise, leadership skills, commitment to racial and social equity, and experience with the organization’s partners and funders make her an exceptional individual for the role of Executive Director. We are confident that under her leadership, the organization’s success and impact in achieving its mission and vision will continue to flourish.
Please join us and the Advisory Board in welcoming Helen as Executive Director by making a donation and showing your support for National Farm to School Network’s new leadership! Your financial support helps National Farm to School Network accomplish our important work, and your donation today will help usher in an exciting new chapter for the organization. You can also send your congratulations to Helen by posting on the National Farm to School Network’s Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
We are grateful to the other members of the Transition Committee (Haile Johnston, Johanna Herron, Dan Carmody and Diane Harris), as well as the full board, staff, partners and the entire National Farm to School Network community for your engagement and support throughout this important process.
As the National Farm to School Network begins its next chapter, there is much to be excited about as we continue innovating, strategizing and strengthening this important movement. Staff and partners have been busy developing the organization’s 2020-2022 strategic plan, planning for the 2020 National Farm to Cafeteria Conference and releasing new resources like the Racial and Social Equity Assessment Tool for Farm to School Programs and Policy and State Farm to School Policy Handbook: 2002-2018. And we’re not even half-way through 2019!
We thank you all for your continued support and partnership as we welcome Helen into her new role. May we continue growing stronger together!
- Jessica Gudmundson and Miguel Villarreal