By Jasmin Edrington, Program Fellow

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) was put into place in 1992. Since then, it has aided many SNAP-eligible and low-income communities in increasing access to healthy food, food education, physical activity and more through farm to school initiatives. SNAP-Ed dollars are typically distributed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service to state Department of Human Services (DHS), who then distribute funds to implementing agencies in their state. These can be state or county agencies, but can also include tribal or community organizations. In Hawai‘i, the Hawai‘i Department of Health’s (DOH) Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division (CDPHPD) is one of two SNAP-Ed implementing agencies. 

In partnership with the Hawai‘i Public Health Institute (HIPHI), CDPHPD is leveraging their state’s SNAP-Ed funding in a new and unique way—they have used the funds to hire a part-time statewide Farm to Early Childhood Care and Education (ECE) Coordinator, David Seegal. David brings a wide range of experience working directly with children as a primary educator and a cook—this firsthand knowledge allows him to bring a rich perspective to the work. 

As a staff member dedicated to policy, systems, and environmental change in farm to ECE, David Seegal will be able to increase capacity to grow Hawai‘i's farm to ECE work. Farm to ECE programming in Hawai‘i has been ongoing informally for many years, thanks to ECE champions across the state, county, and community levels. In 2017, the inaugural Hawai‘i Farm to ECE Coalition formed to better coordinate and expand the existing statewide farm to ECE work. Until now, the coalition has been led by various passionate volunteers, in addition to their full-time staff. 

Photos of Hawai‘i’s farm to ECE programs, courtesy of the Hawai‘i Farm to ECE coalition. 

Hawai‘i’s Farm to ECE Landscape 

Like many states, Hawai‘i's farm to ECE movement has grown in the shadow of a robust farm to school movement, which promotes three core elements in K-12 schools: local procurement, school gardens, and nutrition education. However, Hawai‘i faces unique challenges due to its complex ECE mixed delivery system and island make-up—these features make it harder to break down silos, establish partnerships with ECE providers, and identify sustainable funding for farm to ECE programming and implementation. 

According to Kristy Sakai, the Administrator at Chaminade University Montessori Lab School, less than 10% of Hawai‘i's ECE settings are public. This leads to a high demand for, but low access to, affordable, high-quality child care. The privatization of ECE also means that it can be difficult to embed farm to ECE programming statewide without the central point of contact that many K-12 schools have. Additionally, each of Hawai‘i’s seven inhabited island’s ECE system functions differently because of the unique political structure, available resources, and staff capacity on each island. Kristy explained that “the system is so fragmented…which means not just different sites, [but] different training…the training levels for early childhood providers goes from no formal training all the way up to advanced degrees.”

Hawai‘i is also unique because of the rich culture of Indigenous Peoples. Kristy acknowledges that all farm to school and ECE work must respect and be rooted in the culture and customs of Native communities. As the Farm to ECE Coordinator, David will help enhance the equity work already being done in each community. “Land usage issues, fighting bureaucratic red tape, and grappling with the forces that otherwise affect Hawai‘i make it difficult for local communities to have agency and sovereignty over how they feed themselves,” David expressed. Despite this, David hopes to create partnerships, leverage information, and show people how they fit into the bigger picture, ultimately creating a better system and environment for farm to ECE initiatives. 

Bringing on David will allow for increased capacity for strategic planning about how to address these barriers, while supporting each island’s farm to ECE needs and advancing policy, systems, and environmental change from the ground up. 

Hawai‘i’s First Farm to ECE Coordinator 

The decision to hire a staff member dedicated to coordinating the farm to ECE work in Hawai‘i was crucial in ensuring that the work will be sufficiently prioritized. Early childhood care and education work, in general, is often inadvertently neglected. Many mistakenly assume that young children are included when discussing issues around schools and school meals, when in fact, they often fall under a different administering authority and child nutrition program than K-12 children. Early education is just as important as K-12 education—David will serve as an important advocate that will make sure all young children have access to nourishing food and food education. 

David Seegal, Hawai‘i’s first Farm to ECE Coordinator

Starting a new job is difficult for anyone, but the absence of a roadmap has made the process even more challenging for Hawai‘i’s first Farm to ECE Coordinator. David, along with the help of many others, will have to face the challenge of figuring out what his position means and where to focus his efforts. The vision of the role is a coordinator between ECE settings and programs, farm to school programs, non-profits, food producers, and government agencies to improve communication, strengthen partnerships, and increase farm to ECE programming in Hawai‘i. 

Despite the inevitable challenges with setting up a position for the first time, Hawai‘i ECE stakeholders are excited to have David’s passionate, people-centered, and inclusive leadership at the helm, guiding the work of the Hawai‘i Farm to ECE coalition. 

Implementing Farm to ECE with SNAP-Ed Funding 

SNAP-Ed funding has been critical to growing the farm to ECE work in Hawai‘i. Farm to School & ECE and ECE settings are recognized by SNAP-Ed as evidence-based interventions and settings to increase opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity for young children. This alignment with SNAP-Ed makes farm to ECE programming and staffing an ideal project to be included in a state’s SNAP-Ed plan and budget. 

Jordan Smith, SNAP-Ed Coordinator TA at the Hawai‘i State Department of Health, provides insight on how she helped secure funding for this new role and advice for those looking to do the same. 

First, Jordan encourages establishing a relationship with your state’s SNAP-Ed coordinator(s) and/or implementing agencies. Each state’s coordinator can be found on the USDA SNAP-Ed Connection website. Reach out to your state’s coordinator to learn more about your state’s SNAP-Ed needs assessment, SNAP-Ed State Plan, or the SNAP-Ed administration goals to “get a better sense if ECE is on their radar or a priority activity.” She clarifies that each state will be very different when it comes to forming this relationship. She was lucky to share an office with DOH’s SNAP-Ed Coordinator at the time and have ECE already included as a priority area and community in Hawai‘i’s SNAP-Ed plan. In areas without the same situation, intentional networking will be required to build a relationship with the coordinator. Conversations with SNAP-Ed coordinators and/or implementing agencies to learn about their motives and goals will help to gain buy-in and build needed relationships. 

For states looking to create their own Farm to ECE Coordinator role, it’s also helpful to get acquainted with SNAP-Ed plans and coordinator goals. This can assist in building a vision for the role by identifying the specific needs in your state that a Farm to ECE Coordinator can address. Jordan suggests considering whether the role needs to be part-time or full time, what the coordinator will be able to improve, whether additional funding for activities will be needed, the time frame for the position, and where the position should be housed (a state agency, a non-profit, etc.). All of these considerations help clarify the kind of commitment being made by the implementing agencies when hiring.

Finally, researching state SNAP-Ed plans and speaking with a SNAP-Ed Coordinator helps to ensure that hiring a Farm to ECE Coordinator fits into your state’s priorities. Jordan explains that the Fiscal Year ‘23 SNAP-Ed guide provides a helpful “overview of SNAP-Ed, what activities are approved under SNAP-Ed, and the requirements for a project or position to be funded by SNAP-Ed.” Pitches should include evidence-based research that supports the implementation of the position and how the position will align with SNAP-Ed’s overarching goals. The SNAP-Ed toolkit can help align farm to ECE language with SNAP-Ed language. Jordan also advises being strategic about the timing of the proposal. SNAP-Ed plans are written every 3 years and submitted in the spring, so one of the best times to bring this up is before a new plan is written. 

Though this was an interesting and difficult experience, Kristy, Jordan, and David have all learned a few things. David mentions that early childhood education is unique, and we must recognize the intricacies of teaching kids at such a young age. He emphasizes that farm to ECE is deeper than putting on a “puppet show about carrots”—it’s about “creating a foundation for a healthy society.” It is vital to recognize the importance of ECE, which is often pushed aside. Jordan agreed, saying that we have to “root for farm to ECE in the bigger picture. [Farm to ECE can often be viewed as] ‘trivial’ or ‘additional’, but there is only a small window to impact a child’s lifelong behavior and eating habits.” 

Jordan also gives great advice when it comes to starting new projects: “You should not sacrifice progress for perfection. You just have to go for it and adapt and change as you go.” And finally, Kristy underscores the importance of recognizing your own value and the value in the voices of others. “[We must all strive to] pull up a seat to the table for yourself and others to be able to accomplish great things.” 

Thank you to our 2022 Farm to School Month Sponsors, Farm Credit, CoBank, and National Co+op Grocers, for supporting this work.