Making it Work: Why Local Purchasing is Still Important and How to Make it Work in ECE Settings

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center

By National Farm to School Network's Farm to ECE Working Group - Procurement Subgroup

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in communities across the country. Early care and education (ECE) and food systems have been profoundly impacted and the inequities in access to quality care and nutritious food have only deepened. Many ECE providers and food producers alike are fighting to keep their businesses alive, even as the essential nature of these businesses becomes more apparent. As families face extended financial challenges and potential food insecurity, ECE sites are an important access point for nutritious food for children and families. For that reason, farm to ECE initiatives, especially local food purchasing, offer benefits that may prove even more important right now:

  • ECE sites can link families to the source of local food (farmer’s market, local farms, CSA or food boxes, etc) contributing to sustainable local food systems and increasing access to local food sources.
  • Purchasing local food supports local producers and invests dollars back into the local economy and the local food system.
  • Incorporating local foods in meals can increase nutritional value, quality, and appeal of meals, helping ensure children get the nutrition they need to stay healthy and be ready to learn.  

ECE sites are facing unprecedented financial challenges, including reduced enrollment and limitations in parents’ ability to pay, paired with increased expenses related to meeting health and safety guidelines of reopening. The National Farm to School Network Farm to ECE Procurement Subgroup has compiled recommendations to help local food fit within any budget, including tips for leveraging innovations and partnerships that have emerged through the COVID-19 crisis. For additional resources to support local purchasing, check out the Farm to ECE Local Food Purchasing Resource Compilation.

  • Utilize the USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) - CACFP provides reimbursement for meals and snacks served in ECE settings and is an important way to further food budgets. USDA not only allows, but encourages the use of local foods in CACFP meals and snacks. Connect with your state agency contact to get more information about CACFP in your state. For more tips on using CACFP for local purchasing, take a look at USDA’s Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs Guide or Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems’ Local Food for Little Eaters Toolbox.
  • Seek out Seasonal - In many parts of the country, late summer and early fall signal peak abundance of locally grown foods. When produce is abundant, it is also often less expensive. Learn about seasonal availability in your region with this Seasonal Food Guide. Many states have also developed their own guides, like this one from Louisiana State University which shows the vegetable subgroups recommended by CACFP.
  • Count on Community -  During the COVID-19 crisis, communities have come together to ensure families have enough to eat, sometimes through programs that purchase food from local producers to distribute in the community. Community development organizations, local community foundations, and community food access organizations (like food banks and pantries), may be able to offer local foods as a donation or at a reduced price to ECE sites and to families they serve. Find your local food bank through Feeding America and learn more about the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program here. Donated foods are allowable in CACFP with appropriate documentation. Contact your state administering agency for more information.
  • Order Online - As producers shift to online marketplaces there is increased opportunity for connection and purchasing that can accommodate the smaller quantities needed in ECE settings. Increased options in online purchasing can allow providers to find the producer or vendor with the preferred product, quantity, price, and pick-up/delivery options. Browse the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s Local Foods Directory to find producers, farmers markets, and food hubs in your area.
  • Get Growing - On-site edible gardens not only provide valuable hands-on experiential learning, but can be an access point for locally grown produce. Fruits, vegetables, and herbs grown in the ECE garden can be used in meals and snacks, or shared with families to take home.  

Even as the costs and impacts of COVID-19 continue to mount, the importance of strong ECE and food systems, and the opportunity for these systems and stakeholders to work together, is only becoming more apparent. Starting or continuing to offer local foods to children and families is one way to contribute to healthy learning environments and healthy communities that benefit families today and build strength and resilience for whatever the future holds.

More Resources for Farm to ECE and COVID-19: