By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate
Credit: Taking Root Tennessee
Along with the onset of spring, March brings with it many ways to celebrate good nutrition for our littlest eaters. With warmer days comes opportunity for planting spinach and radish seeds and savoring the first tastes of sweet peas and baby greens. March is also National Nutrition Month, a time devoted to celebrating good nutrition for all, as well as National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week, a national campaign aimed at raising awareness about the benefits and importance of the USDA CACFP program.
The CACFP program provides 1.9 billion meals and snacks to over 3.2 million children in child care centers, family child care homes and after-school programs each year. In addition to ensuring access to nutritious food for children in child care settings, the program also aims to support nutrition education and positive eating habits.
In celebration of these important awarness campaigns, we’re recognizing the work of organization like Taking Root Tennessee, which aims to influence a generation of children to be healthy eaters by exposing them to fresh, healthy foods. To do this, Taking Root Tennessee offers gardening opportunities for young children by building gardens and providing tools, technical assistance and curriculum to early care and education providers.
For Joshua Smith, Program Coordinator, and Phillip Hester, Program Director, expanding garden education is a natural extension of the work of Taking Root Tennessee’s parent organization, Our Daily Bread of Tennessee. As a CACFP sponsor, Our Daily Bread facilitates the administration of the CACFP program to over 300 family child care homes, child care centers, at risk afterschool programs, and summer food programs, reaching nearly 10,000 children with healthy meals and snacks each day.
The gardening experience offered by Taking Root Tennessee supports the CACFP aims of contributing to the nutrition knowledge, wellness and healthy growth of young children. As Smith notes, the CACFP meal requirements ensure children are offered fruits and vegetables, while farm to school activities, like gardening and food-related educational opportunities, make it more likely that children will actually eat and enjoy those fruits and vegetables.
Farm to school activities offered by Taking Root Tennessee not only support the health and wellness of children, but families, early care and education providers and local growers also reap the benefits. One child in the program was so excited about gardening, and his mother so thrilled to see her child eating fresh vegetables, that the family is now in search of a home where they can put in a garden and grow vegetables for the whole family.
Garden trainings offered by Taking Root Tennessee give early care and education providers the opportunity to expand their palates, as well. Never having tasted a bell pepper, one provider was convinced that they would be too spicy for the children in her care. After tasting the sweetness of a ripe red bell pepper at a training, she eagerly began growing them in the garden and offering them at snack time.
As providers taste the distinct flavors of freshly grown produce and see how the children respond, they are requesting more information about how to source more fresh, local products. Smith and Hester happily point them towards farmers’ markets and connect them with local producers, increasing market opportunities for local growers.
As Taking Root Tennessee demonstrates, farm to early care and education and CACFP can be valuable keys to allowing all children the opportunity to grow and eat healthy, local food. To learn more about getting started with farm to school activities in early care and education settings – like gardening, local procurement, and food-based activities to enhance the educational experience – download our Getting Started with Farm to Early Care and Education factsheet. Now is a great time to take actions that will help children celebrate great nutrition all year round!