This post is part of our Farm to ECE Procurement Blog Series, which is devoted to the many ways that early care and education sites connect children and their families to local food and local food producers. Read previous posts in this series here. Have a farm to ECE procurement story to share? Contact Lacy Stephens at email@example.com
Strawberries. Sweet potatoes. Squash. Microgreens. These are just some of the Alabama-grown fresh fruits and vegetables that the Farm Food Collaborative (FFC) has been distributing to local restaurants, grocery stores, and schools across North Alabama since 2013. Now, Natalie Bishnoi and Carey Martin-Lane, FFC co-managers, are bringing these fresh fruits and vegetables to early care and education (ECE) settings.
FFC offers a unique model for farm to ECE procurement as they are a food hub housed within the Food Bank of North Alabama. Originally established to support farmers selling “fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to Alabama schools, hospitals, grocery stores, restaurants and workplace cafeterias,” FFC helps farmers obtain GAP certification so they can sell their products in wholesale markets and distributes local foods to major grocery chains and school sites in North Alabama. FFC recently extended their local procurement service to ECE settings by launching a pilot project at 5 ECE sites in the Huntsville and Madison County region of Alabama.
The concept for the farm to ECE procurement pilot launched in 2017 when FFC connected with the Alabama Partnership for Children. The two organizations along with other ECE and food systems partners began building a statewide farm to ECE coalition. The coalition contributed to pilot planning by hosting focus groups and developing a survey to determine the interest and potential engagement level of ECE providers in the region. The pilot officially launched in spring of 2018 with weekly deliveries of strawberries to the 5 ECE sites, and quickly expanded to include cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, peaches, squash, zucchini, blueberries, watermelon, apples, and satsumas.
FFC had to overcome several challenges to bring fresh, locally grown food to these ECE sites. First, many ECE providers lacked equipment or staff to prepare fresh food on site. To begin to address this, FFC launched the pilot with strawberries, an easy snack that requires minimal preparation. This approach also helped FFC win over hesitant staff at the sites. The cook at one site in particular was very hesitant about local foods. After strawberry season, his whole perception and attitude toward serving fresh food had changed and he was very enthusiastic, especially about the quality of the produce.
FFC also found that the ECE sites needed additional support to both incorporate fresh, local food into their food budgets and encourage child acceptance of new foods. In the pilot, FFC targeted ECE sites participating in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and educated providers on using local foods within the CACFP meal pattern. In addition, FFC provided educational resources – book recommendations, coloring sheets, garden-related activities, USDA recipes, etc. – for ECE providers to use when introducing new foods to familiarize children with the food and teach them how crops are grown and harvested. These materials include a parent newsletter with program information, age-appropriate cooking activities, and explanations about WIC and SNAP eligibility requirements. “Again, part of our mission that is so important to us is [food] access. A lot of people qualify [for WIC and SNAP] without realizing it,” Natalie notes.
FFC also had to navigate the much smaller quantity of product required for ECE sites. Instead of asking farmers to deliver these microcases to the individual ECE sites, farmers deliver to the food bank, or in some cases, FFC will pick up the orders and transport them in a Food Bank-shared refrigerated van to the sites themselves. Their advice for tackling the transportation and logistics of Farm to ECE? Pair up with a food hub. “They have the procurement and distribution piece established already and pooling resources is imperative for sustainability,” Carey explains.
FFC sees their success not just in the increased amount of local foods served to and eaten by young children, but in the increased interest in and focus on healthy local foods at the ECE sites they are working with. One site is starting a garden with the help of Master Gardeners, and another will be connecting with an on-site farmers’ market for families and community members. FFC attributes much of the success of the pilot to the collaboration and support of the Alabama Farm to ECE Coalition. The work has also been heavily influenced and informed by farm to ECE networks and stakeholders in other states. “We are extremely grateful to states like Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina,” Carey says. “They have been so helpful and willing to share information. That really is just a part of the farm to school/ECE culture. We are all trying to make our kids as healthy as possible. That’s a wonderful thing.
With the support of the Alabama Farm to ECE Coalition and national partners, FFC is planning for growth and expansion of local food procurement in ECE sites across Alabama. FFC will be expanding to 12 sites in North Alabama this summer and will start reaching new areas of the state in subsequent years. Eventually, FFC would like to have its own processing capability to provide ECE sites with local, pre-chopped fruits and veggies, increasing opportunities for more ECE sites to serve local products in meals and snacks. Natalie notes that once an ECE site gets involved with serving fresh, local food to their kids, they are hooked – the ECE providers and kids alike. As demand continues to grow, FFC will be working hard this strawberry season to keep up with interest and to grow farm to ECE across the state. “Our local farmers are able to select varieties that are delicious and nutritious. When our prime harvest season is here, we want to make sure we are taking advantage of it for the kids, community, farmers and the local economy.”