By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

For the past year, early care and education providers across the country have been stepping up to build a healthier future for children by participating in the CACFP Take Action Challenge. The CACFP Take Action Challenge was designed to boost awareness about the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and its vital role in improving children’s health, enhancing the quality of child care, and addressing serious national issues like food insecurity and childhood obesity. The challenge also celebrates the incredible work of CACFP sponsors and providers as they completed health oriented activities from a list of challenges and submitted stories and pictures showing their success. Many of these “Actioneers” found success in farm to early care and education initiatives, and emerged as leaders in CACFP and in farm to ECE!

Michelle France-Slimak of Apple Valley Family Child Care in Plantsville, Conn., achieved Gold level recognition in the Challenge through a wide variety of food-based learning activities. This year, the raised beds and pots at Apple Valley were full of peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, and blueberry plants. The children find many ways to explore the foods they grow and the foods Michelle purchases from farmers markets. The vast array of sizes, shapes, and colors of produce make for fun, interactive lessons, and Michelle offers fruits and vegetables prepared in a variety of ways so children can compare tastes and flavors. With all of these learning opportunities, including field trips to local farms and orchards, Michelle has seen big changes in the food choices her children are making – choices that will set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.

At TenderCare, a family child care home in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, children not only follow local foods from seed to plate, but also learn how food can bring the community together. Gladys Movall, owner and provider at TenderCare, also happens to be a Master Gardener, and sees first hand the many lessons children learn in the garden, from appreciating the environment, to listening skills, teamwork, and time management. Gladys notes how enthusiastic the children are to try the foods that come out of the garden and to bring the foods home to their families. The children also learn about the importance of healthy food in the community by visiting farmers markets to talk to producers and by sharing the bounty of their garden with the local food bank. At TenderCare, children see the potential for a small seed to grow into big impacts in the community.

At the 9 locations of the North Bay Children’s Center (NBCC) in central Calif., farm to ECE initiatives are integrated in a wide variety of activities through The Garden of Eatin’ program. Led by Garden and Nutrition Educators Lisa Bianchi and Lacey Packard, children plant and harvest in the gardens, cook with fresh garden produce, and participate in Harvest of the Month activities. NBCC carries the message of healthy, local eating into the community by developing new community gardens and providing parent educations about the importance of the farm to school movement. NBCC fosters a "wellness policy" company wide that includes staff development education on the importance of embracing healthy living through farm fresh foods. As staff learn about and become enthusiastic for gardening and healthy eating, children see this modeling and farm to ECE initiatives becomes an even more natural way of life for children and families, too.

This was the first year to delve into farm to ECE activities for Coastal Community Head Start in N.C. Based on the positive feedback from teachers, families, and children, the organization is looking towards increasing their local purchases and integrating even more food-based activities into the program. Nutrition Manager Catherine Schlaefer, was thrilled to be able to purchase farm fresh treats from a producer just down the road for meals and snacks. Children and teachers alike noticed the difference in the flavor of these freshly picked strawberries, green peas, melons, cucumbers and fresh corn. Everyone is now looking forward to sweet potato season and Catherine is planning her menus to incorporate even more local foods next year. Catherine’s favorite thing about the Challenge was the way that it made meeting CACFP regulations fun and exciting and brought a “lighter side” to CACFP.  

While the CACFP Take Action Challenge has come to an end, these providers and the children, families, and community they serve will continue to reap the many benefits of farm to ECE. Read more stories of success on the CACFP Take Action Challenge website and find ways you can take action with farm to early care and education on the National Farm to School Network Farm to Early Care and Education webpage.

Photo captions: Children at one of the Costal Community Head Starts enjoy exploring corn before cooking and tasting it (top); A child inspects microgreens at a North Bay Children’s Center site (bottom).