In celebration of the 10th anniversary of National Farm to School Network’s launch into farm to early care and education (farm to ECE), Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow, sat down with the original trailblazers of farm to ECE and the new leaders in the movement. These inspiring women shared their perspectives on the growth, innovations, and successes they’ve seen, what the future holds for farm to ECE, and what is needed to continue building an equitable and sustainable movement.
Emily Jackson, Program Director, Growing Minds Farm to School, ASAP
Zoe Phillips, Director of Administration, Office of Women’s Health, LA County Department of Public Health
Stacey Sobell, Director of People & Culture, Ecotrust
This conversation took place with the original leaders in farm to ECE and Co-Leads of the original NFSN Farm to Preschool Subcommittee. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophia: Please tell us briefly where you were in your career during your time on the subcommittee and why you decided to invest time into supporting the start of farm to ECE?
Zoe: 10 years ago I was with UEPI, the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, working under Bob Gottlieb. I started back in 2009 as a volunteer. I received my Masters in Public Health in the Spring of 2008. While I was looking for jobs, I bugged him until he gave me an internship. He gave me a set of different projects that he thought could show some promise. At the time I had a preschooler, and he mentioned what we were calling farm to preschool as a potential project. I started immediately writing grants and doing some program planning and development. The grants were awarded and that was the start of my baby. Around April 2009, I created a pilot program for farm to preschool.
Emily: I work with the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project in Asheville, North Carolina. 10 years ago, I was the Program Director for Growing Minds and today, I'm still the Program Director, but I'm retiring this year. We started doing farm to preschool back in 2007. When we first started the subcommittee I was serving as the Southeast Regional lead for the National Farm to School Network, Stacey was the Northwest lead with Ecotrust, and Zoe's organization was one of the core institutions housing the network. So, I was lucky enough to work with them and push this movement into fruition.
Stacey: 10 years ago I was at Ecotrust, where I still work. I'm in a different role now, doing more people oriented human resources work, but I was in the Farm to School program in our Food and Farms team for about a decade. When I first started, my boss was really excited about getting farm to preschool going, so we did a pilot. After we did that pilot, we received a lot of inquiries, just because there wasn't much information online except from Emily, Zoey, and myself.
Sophia: What did participating on the farm to preschool subcommittee involve for each of you?
Emily: Our overarching goal was to grow this movement, since it was nascent at that time. Each of us also spearheaded different work with our own work groups. I was really interested in taking this upstream and embedding this in the community college programs so we could train providers while they're in school - and happy update - it's been a long journey, but we now are working with 22 of the 58 community colleges in North Carolina and hopefully we'll see that number grow even more in the next couple of years. But, the experience of working nationally and getting input from people really helped me see what was needed and how to best navigate that work.
Zoe: It was very exciting to discover that we had these three different programs in different parts of the country that had been developed somewhat around the same time. Once the three of us got together, we were able to look forward and pool our resources, the best practices we had developed, and the challenges that we had gone through to lead the subcommittee. It was a really special point in time and we got along really well. We shared leading responsibilities for the subcommittee, we were able to help grow the members of the subcommittee so that it was far ranging, from small community based organizations to academia to the CDC. Eventually our program at UEPI moved into other states in the West and we even partnered with a Montessori school with the Navajo Nation. But together, the three of us were able to help build the movement on a national level.
Sophia: What do you think was your greatest accomplishment while working to bring together the Farm to Preschool movement? Or, in your own farm to Preschool work?
Zoe: I came into this having no gardening experience. I had a health education background and nutrition background, but learning how to garden, how to teach preschool aged kids and their teachers how to garden, and how to find ways to make it economical was so great. Watching the kids dig in the dirt in an urban setting was also incredible to see. I remember one time, we had asked the nutrition director who oversaw a set of preschools if she would start introducing more vegetables, and she said, “well, if I see the kids eat it, then yes, I'll bring them in.” So we had a cauliflower taste test with a lesson plan and we collected the data to show that kids were actually eating it, enjoying it, and wanting more of it, so they put it on the menu. So that was gratifying to see. Also, the building of our website. We were able to bring in partners from all over the country and share their resources and tools on the website, which was special.
Emily: The three of us showed the network what great promise there was in this and why the network should invest resources and time. So the years that we all spent together trying to build this movement just really paid off in that way. I think that was a great accomplishment. We grew it to where it needed to be and then the network took it over, which was fabulous. The other thing that I'm proud of is creating those critical resources with my organization to make things easy. We have a farm to preschool toolkit that is now being sold all across the country. And in that toolkit is something that the North Carolina Network created together, which we call reach for the stars, which takes the star rating and aligns it to preschool activities. Another piece of the toolkit is the crosswalk between our lesson plans, which are very experiential, and CACFP guidelines. So the children are not only getting a local, healthy snack, but they're also getting the education associated with that product.
Sophia: Can you speak to the growth that you’ve seen overtime? Is the state of the movement today where you thought it would be 10 years ago?
Emily: The Association of State Public Health Nutritionists, or ASPHN, pulled down CDC money and were able to distribute that to states for farm to ECE work. North Carolina, along with 10 other states and the District of Columbia received funding. To me, that shows some strength, that there is a lot of infrastructure out there for this, and that it’s growing. It’s a lot harder than K12. They're so much more underfunded and there's a lot of entrenched problems with early care and education. So I think it's even more of a success that we've been able to build out the infrastructure that exists now, with the leadership of the National Farm to School Network, of course. This ASPHN grant is an example of the success of the movement.
Zoe: I have been a little more removed from it for a while, but have kept in touch with what's happening, particularly in Los Angeles. So it's exciting to hear the developments for the movement, and that it's happening at a local level, state level and national level. 10 years ago, it was our dream that it could develop to that point. There's also been improvements in offering funding at the national level but if there could be even more, that would be better, because funding is really what supports this work.
Sophia: What do you see as the future of farm to ECE? What do you envision? Any promising opportunities?
Stacey: I'm thinking about a lot of what my work is focused on right now. We’re putting more of a racial justice focus and anti racist kind of lens to that work, and I know that Farm School Network is also doing a lot of work around that.
Emily: I hope with the current administration that we're going to see more funding. I think the pandemic showed a lot of things about our country, and one is that our infrastructure for early care and education is just vastly underfunded. So, hopefully, we're going to see more universal child care. That'll also raise up racial equity issues while making room for things like farm to preschool, because people hopefully won't be struggling so much with the funding issue.
Zoe: I think it is hugely important that this movement can find a role in helping decrease structural racism, improve disparities, and move towards improving food insecurity. Having a farm to preschool program in any type of early care setting as a default would be incredible. If it became the norm it would be fantastic, where they're getting food, and bolstering the farmers.
Emily: Just think of all the joy and wonder out there if every kid could be exposed to a garden. That could be a beautiful thing.