By Lacy Stephens, Farm to Preschool Associate

Lacy Stephens is the National Farm to School Network’s new Farm to Preschool Associate. Joining the team from Bozeman, Mont., Lacy will help us continue to elevate preschool and early child care needs as a permanent and essential component of the wider farm to school movement.

If you’ve ever watched a young child bite into a sun-ripened strawberry or a toddler waddle through a pumpkin patch, then you know farm to preschool activities are a natural fit for zero to five-year-olds. Thankfully, the success of farm to school programs in K-12 schools across the nation has set the stage for expansion of the movement to early childhood audiences. While many states have some form of farm to preschool, there is still immense opportunity to reach more children with these impactful initiatives. Here are a few reasons why farm to preschool is a great fit for our littlest eaters:

Promotes lifelong healthy eating
In the years before kindergarten, children develop taste preferences and eating habits that will impact their health for a lifetime. Repeated exposure to healthy foods through taste testing, seasonal foods at lunchtime, and garden nibbles encourages adventurous eating and a diverse diet. Variety is vital to ensuring children get the wide-range of nutrients their growing bodies need, and promotes a lifelong habit of healthy food choices.

Capitalizes on curiosity
Farm to preschool activities integrate seamlessly with the learning styles of young children. Gardening capitalizes on children’s natural curiosity and encourages them to engage all of their senses. Children gain knowledge about the natural environment and a connection to where their food comes from by exploring in garden beds. And, as children grow older and prepare for kindergarten, the garden is a perfect place to master important skills like counting, identifying colors and practicing the alphabet.

Benefits beyond the child
The benefits of farm to preschool activities in early care and education settings reach far beyond the child. A child’s enthusiasm for harvesting fresh vegetables and tasting new foods can be a motivating factor for parents to make changes in the foods they serve to their families. Many farm to preschool programs even offer special farm to table family events or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships for families to ensure the health and education benefits of farm to preschool are continued at home. Preschool programs have the potential to develop strong connections to small local farmers, as well. Class field trips, using produce in meals and snacks and promoting the farmer’s goods to families creates new marketing opportunities for growers. Farm to preschool is truly a win for kids, families, farmers and communities.

Now is the time to continue growing farm to preschool and capitalize on the momentum of the movement. This year, the role of farm to preschool in promoting child health has been at the forefront of child nutrition policy. In March, the USDA released a memorandum highlighting the use of local foods in Child and Adult Care Food Program. Additional support for farm to preschool has also been asked for in the Farm to School Act of 2015. If the policy ideas and expanded funding proposed in this bill are included in the final reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, all early care and education programs will benefit from access to the USDA Farm to School Grant program.

State level farm to preschool policy has also been expanding. In Washington, D.C., the passage of the D.C. Healthy Tots Act in 2014 set an important precedent for farm to preschool legislation. This comprehensive bill has a strong emphasis on farm to preschool activities, including all three core elements of farm to school: local procurement, gardens and education. Now is the time to encourage more states and communities to adopt similar polices that will create greater access to farm to preschool for all young learners.

Many farm to preschool leaders have spent years developing valuable resources and exemplary programs. Moving forward, our challenge is to reach more early care educators with the farm to preschool message and ensure that all programs – from the smallest home care providers to the largest Head Start centers – have the opportunity to be a part of this movement. The more children we reach with farm to preschool, the healthier our next generation will be.

Learn more about farm to preschool here and access farm to preschool tips and tools in our resource library by searching under the Preschool / Early Care setting.