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.
Andrea Lopez, Food and Wellness Program Officer, CentroNia
Caroline Stover, Project Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems
Brittany Martens, Nutrition Consultant and Farm to ECE Coordinator, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
Wande Okunoren-Meadows, Executive Director, Little Ones Learning Center
This conversation took place with current leaders and innovators in the farm to ECE movement. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophia: Please give us a general idea of how your organization or department does farm to ECE, what your role entails, and how you got your start in this work?
Caroline: I run the farm to early care and education initiative in North Carolina. We are an initiative with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which is a three way partnership between the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and two land grant universities and North Carolina State University. Our initiative really seeks to promote farm to ECE and grow the movement in the state through systems level change. We connect early care and education system leaders at the state level with local food systems leaders. And so we do that through statewide stakeholder engagement, where we listen to folks on the ground who are really doing the work and spread their successes and make it easier for them to do farm to ECE. I've been doing this work since 2016. Before that, I was with FoodCorps, a Farm to School program, for four years. I have just really enjoyed bringing the farm to table movement to younger and younger children as I go on.
Brittany: I work for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for both the Child and Adult Care Food Program as well as the Early Childhood Obesity Prevention unit. We are working to lift farm to ECE with systems thinking since 2016, which is when I got hired and we started our first Team Nutrition farm to ECE grant. That was a three year grant focusing on culinary training, gardening and curriculum. Since then we have focused our programming and funding on trying to overcome barriers and understand them through community based programming. We're also currently working on our farm to ECE coalition, which is two years in, and we have about 25 members and 18 organizations helping to align farm to ECE across the state, bringing diverse voices to the table. We're hoping to increase our membership, helping to represent populations we serve and those historically underserved communities. We’re doing this through an Association of State Public Health Nutrition grant, which is allowing us to implement nine community based mini grants and build a three year Colorado farm ECE roadmap. Additionally, we're going to be releasing our first curriculum that's Colorado specific for our Harvest of the Month program. I’m coming from a background both as a chef and a nutritionist. So I love having the perspective of both fields, trying to connect with the cooks and think about their day in and day out and how to make this programming work for them.
Wande: I am with Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia. Our organization is actually part of a five group initiative with the WK Kellogg Foundation. We’re all about increasing the quality of early childcare programs and communities, supporting the state, and bringing it to scale. Our program can be considered a model demonstration site. We do a lot of implementation programming here, because it's important to see proof of concept. We've been doing this work for many years but it doesn't mean that we have all the answers. I've also launched a nonprofit that is focused on farm to ECE. It's called the Hand Heart and Soul Project, where we provide children and families access to nutrient dense foods and we develop holistic programming focused on health, wellness, education and nutrition programs. I'm focused on making sure that the voices that are doing this work are elevated. People in policy are absolutely needed, but we also need to hear from the boots on the ground. We say farm to ECE should not be a burden, but without the right supports in place it becomes a burden for teachers and everybody else.
Andrea: I work in an organization called CentroNia. We're a nonprofit organization providing high quality bilingual, early childhood education in a multicultural environment in Washington DC. We also have a site in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Within our early childhood services, we have the food and wellness department, which is a wraparound service, and that's my role in the organization as program officer. My role entails operating the child nutrition program, so right now that’s the CACFP Summer Meals Program. We also have a central catering company that is specific to ECE centers. We also do CACFP compliant catering to a wide range of centers, they can be small, maybe 25 to 30 children up to other centers who have 100 children throughout the district.
We also work with food access programs. We partnered with a fresh farm organization that brings pop up markets to ECE centers. We were a pilot center in 2018 and are still doing that with SNAP and WIC eligible families, bringing them fresh fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis. I've been with CentroNia for the past three and a half years. My background is in nutrition, so in this position, I've learned a lot about community nutrition. My special interest is in encouraging people to try new foods, and especially at a young age to develop their palate.
Sophia: Wande, I’d love to hear from your perspective how this movement has changed and grown since you became involved. Either in your center or the movement as a whole?
Wande: It's picked up a lot of interest, but that might be because it's trendy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever we can do to bring health and wellness to communities. We've seen it branch out with teachers and families now wanting to participate in the movement. Also, now that the government is taking part with federal funding streams that are focused on health and wellness and equity, everybody wants to jump in, which can lead to mission creeping. Not everyone needs to be applying for this funding. So it's great that everybody wants to get involved, but we do need to make sure that money remains for those doing the work and not allow mission creepers to come into our industry.
Sophia: Brittany, from your perspective working in government, what growth have you seen?
Brittany: With our first grant application, we were pretty much begging people to apply. If they applied, they got a grant, and we had maybe five people who actually applied and got a grant. And this year, in a pandemic, during a time when childcare providers are understaffed, overworked and stressed out, we received 78 applications. I was blown away by the momentum that we have seen, and I think it has to do with our ability to bring in stakeholders. With our coalition, we have grown so much and are expanding as much as we can to bring everyone into farm to ECE, making sure that we're talking to every person who touches childcare or farm or food system work. We hear what they want to do and start speaking the same language. For example, the cultural wellness program is trying to encourage local food in their cultural cooking classes and Cooking Matters knows how to bring us in so that we can provide farmers market education. I really think that that has driven our momentum and has helped us to have a louder voice. I have to agree that it is becoming trendier and people are starting to buy into it. We've been saying forever that we have to step away from the instant gratification, we have to teach children to slow down and to be connected to their food and to step away from processed foods and to take the time to cook for children, and it's starting to catch on. I think that that's what's really been driving Colorado; we're starting to speak with a unified voice.
Sophia: Andrea, I'd love to hear from you what you think your largest contribution to farm to ECE has been?
Andrea: Farm to ECE was really the priority of my past supervisor. She brought nutritious meals to the Columbia Heights area in Washington DC and built an all around program. The meals that we used to serve included processed foods and now we cook from scratch. It's a learning process for our cooks to figure out how to get produce from local sources and try to manipulate that into something doable in our menus. So again, working with families, immigrant communities, and meeting them halfway to not only push this healthy lifestyle, but offer CSA bags with maybe a produce item that they have never tried before and being very aware of their cultural standpoint and where they're coming from. We focus on traditions. We are aware that we work with working parents, but we try to tell parents that they could conserve their traditions and expose children to the home cooked meals they grew up eating. Traditional food is healthier food, but more importantly, that might be their only connection to their culture.
Sophia: Caroline, what do you think your largest contribution to this movement has been?
Caroline: Our initiative. We have seen a lot of spread here. I also have loved that we've been able to promote the work that folks have been doing for a really long time. There's such great examples of folks that have been doing this work for so long and they have been such great advocates for continuing and spreading the work, speaking with their legislators and the childcare commission, and really just making farm to ECE front row center. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to have met those folks and learn from them.
Sophia: Where do you all see farm to ECE moving as a whole?
Wande: We had a farm stand that was shut down by the city a couple of years ago and the media interviewed the city manager, and they asked her, “why are you shutting the farm stand down?” The city manager said, if we allow a farmstand at this center, there could be farmstands everywhere. That means she has no idea what access issues are, what transportation issues are, and how health and education correlate. So, for me, the next 10 years looks like people in charge understanding what it means to take care of communities, because if you don't have people supporting communities, then when you have local funding coming through, they're not going to allocate it in ways that are supportive to this movement. So I’m looking for better informed policymakers and other people that are in these positions of power.
Brittany: I want to go off of what you [Wande] just said, because I absolutely agree with that. I want to see less of the higher ups, like the state agency, creating the grant program and more of the communities creating the grant programs, which is what we're working for right now. I don't want to have all the money, I want all the money to go to the communities and I want them to build the programming. Right now our nine community based programs are doing work that I never could have fathomed. They are impacting communities, they are working with children who are separated at the border, and they are trying to mitigate the trauma they've experienced. And they are bringing that to the garden. They're working with autistic children and getting nonverbal children to play with worms and talk to their worm when they haven't spoken that many words in a month. I mean, it's the type of work that I don't say I have to go to work, I say that I get to, I get to do this work. And I can't wait to see more money going to the communities and less people saying make a kale salad, because it's good for you. And that's where I see this going as well. I couldn't agree with you more that we need to get the policy in line with that, and the funding in line with that, so that the people in the communities can tell us what they need, and they can put it out there and meet those needs.
Andrea: You know, sometimes with these grants, they build a framework and it's one size fits all. With diet and nutrition, we're steering away from that individualization but for farm to ECE we need individualization. It's very different in urban settings where there might not be space for a garden and you need to adjust. So when the community speaks to what is relevant to them, what is sustainable to them in the long run, it’s always a good thing.
Caroline: Pragmatically speaking, thinking about local food procurement, we often say that there’s a benefit for farmers with the increased market for them. But when we look at local food procurement, we're talking about tablespoons as serving sizes, we're talking about centers that serve very few children. It definitely benefits the children, but how can we make it more beneficial for farmers? So that's something that we started looking into, and we're excited to tap more into that by networking centers, coordinating menus, working with head starts a little more, and maybe combining sarm to school and farm to ECE efforts. Some of the folks that we work with throughout the state are already trying to do some of those really cool methods. Also, I know folks on this call have also mentioned working with infants and toddlers and that just gets me really excited. Having consistency from birth to preschool to the school cafeteria. We've been working with local cooperative extension agents, and they have done a fabulous job with folks that are new to gardening and new to cooking fresh food. They've gotten right on board going into the centers and helping with that gardening piece, recruiting volunteers for folks and doing some family engagements and parent training, things like that. I think there's just such an opportunity for sustainability using systems that already exist and making sure that this work continues.