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

While we aim to celebrate great nutrition for kids all year round, this week, we have a special reason to cheer. March 12 – 18 is National CACFP Week, a week devoted to raising awareness of how the USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) works to combat hunger and bring healthy foods to the table for adults in day care and children in child care homes, centers, and in afterschool and summer feeding programs across the country. CACFP provides approximately 1.9 billion meals and snacks to over 3.3 million children every day. Studies show children who participate in CACFP programs have healthier eating patterns and are less likely to be overweight. CACFP may even contribute to reduced household food insecurity. There are so many reasons to celebrate this important program!

Farm to early care and education (ECE) activities – including local procurement, gardening, and food-based education – offer valuable opportunities to support success in CACFP. In 2017, new CACFP meal patterns will go into effect that require programs to serve a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and lower sugar foods. Farm to ECE experiences, like taste tests, cooking activities and gardening, can encourage children to taste and accept new, diverse foods. Serving local and seasonal foods is even identified as a best practice in USDA’s “Child and Adult Care Food Program Meal Pattern Revision: Best Practices.”  

The National Farm to School Network and ECE stakeholders will continue the celebration of CACFP when we convene for the National CACFP Conference in San Diego, Calif., April 18-20, 2017. Farm to ECE educational opportunities are highlighted throughout the conference schedule, ensuring even more CACFP sponsors and ECE stakeholders will take home resources, information and know-how to spread farm to ECE opportunities across the country. The National Farm to School Network will kick off the conference week by offering a preconference training session in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, Taking Root Tennessee, and YMCA Childcare Resource Service of San Diego. This four-hour session will demonstrate how farm to ECE initiatives not only integrate seamlessly with the learning style of young children, but are also an evidenced-based approach to meeting educational and nutrition standards (including CACFP meal patterns) and improving the quality of early care and education environments. Whether participants are seasoned experts or just ready to plant the first seeds, they will come away with concrete plans to “grow” health and wellness, experiential learning opportunities, and parent engagement through farm to ECE.  

The learning and fun continue with multiple break-out sessions devoted to the core elements of farm to ECE. The National Farm to School Network, USDA, the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute and North County Community Services will introduce participants to the ways that farm to ECE initiatives can support success in meeting new CACFP meal pattern requirements while increasing children’s acceptance of the new foods found on their plates. In another session, USDA will show participants how to use the popular Grow It! Try It! Like It! nutrition education curriculum to build lifelong healthy habits for young eaters. USDA will also join the Texas Department of Agriculture and Michigan State University to provide attendees with concrete steps to begin or increase their use of local products in menus and educational programming. Finally, Our Daily Bread of Tennessee will dig into the garden experience and demonstrate how gardening can promote healthier food choices and introduce science, math, and environmental stewardship concepts, while improving social and interpersonal skills.  

Find more ways to celebrate CACFP during National CACFP Week and learn more about National CACFP Conference from the National CACFP Sponsors Association. Learn more about farm to early care and education from the National Farm to School Network’s Farm to Early Care and Education landing page.