Photo credit: Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center, taken in 2019.
Guest blog by NC Farm to Early Care & Education, an initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems
Based in Silk Hope, North Carolina, Sonflower Seeds Christian Preschool and Learning Center (Sonflower Seeds) has cared for children from 6 weeks old to age 12 for the past 15 years. Silk Hope is a small rural community near the Triangle of NC and beyond their play area lies 500 acres of pasture. Sonflower Seeds has been a leader in their county for many years for their support of local food and farms.
Though the number of children at the Center has decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sonflower continues to serve many children of farmers, paramedics, police, and other essential workers. We spoke with Heidi Lineberry, Sonflower Seeds’ Director, to learn how sourcing local food has allowed them to continue serving nutritious meals to the children throughout the pandemic while supporting farmers nearby.
The NC Farm to ECE Initiative, facilitated by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, works with early childhood facilities and their communities to purchase local food and provide children with experiential learning around local food. The Farm to ECE Collaborative organizes community teams throughout North Carolina to connect food and early childhood systems.
Sonflower Seeds has been part of the Collaborative for a few years now. In 2019, with support from NC Farm to ECE, Sonflower Seeds formalized their commitment to local food by implementing a center policy that they serve fresh produce five days a week.
Sonflower Seeds’ dedication to sourcing locally began about eight years ago, when Heidi realized that she could have milk and other dairy products delivered from a local dairy, Homeland Creamery, rather than using staff time and gas for hauling 20+ gallons of milk from the grocery store every week. They also source most of their produce locally from Red Roots Farm, Okfuskee Farm, and Kildee Farm, eggs from Edell’s Eggs, apples and berries from Millstone Creek Orchards, and ground beef from Smithview Farm. Several of these farmers have children or grandchildren who attend Sonflower Seeds. Heidi connected with other farmers through word of mouth or recommendations from other farmers.
Sourcing food from local farmers as well as having a garden on site, has benefited Sonflower Seeds in many ways, including:
Product availability even during emergencies: Sonflower Seeds’ existing connections with local farmers has allowed them to serve nutritious, local foods without disruption even when other centers in their area have struggled to find milk and other products during the pandemic. They were already well accustomed to ordering and delivering procedures and local suppliers prioritized Sonflower Seeds as loyal customers.
Child nutrition, experiential learning, and family engagement: Heidi believes serving nutritious local foods is part of their commitment to caring for the “whole child.” When produce is delivered, children get to know the farmers by name and learn that real people in their community grow their food. Sonflower also hosts a pop-up farmers market for parents to meet the farmers and learn how the food is produced. When the center receives carrots with the greens on, children learn which part grows below the ground and which part above and practice preparing fresh produce with child-friendly utensils. The children also love to walk through the center’s strawberry patch, and parents are interested in helping in the garden too.
When the egg farmer has fewer eggs during the winter, the center overcomes this by slightly altering their menus and uses this as a learning opportunity to share with the children how it’s natural for chickens to take a break from laying eggs in the wintertime. One of the farmer's children was excited to share when his family got more chicks and to tell his friends they’d have more eggs soon!
Food quality and taste: The local produce is fresh and delicious. Sonflower Seeds offers taste tests for the children and many opportunities to try new foods, and has seen the children become more adventurous. Children might not eat cooked spinach, but will pluck the leaves and eat them raw from the garden.
Marketing: Sourcing locally has helped Sonflower Seeds to attract new families too. They send out a questionnaire to new families about children’s dietary needs and preferences and promote their participation in Farm to ECE so parents know it is a priority. They display a Farm to ECE poster provided by the Collaborative on a fence outside of the building. This year alone, Sonflower Seeds added five new families because of their commitment to local foods.
Heidi says, “The Farm to ECE Collaborative has grown our Center. It has helped us to see that a little bit of what we were already doing can be done on a broader scale, it helped turn us into a niche program by putting into policy that we serve fresh and local fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy, and promoting it. Once you put things out there more things come to you.”
The Center receives wholesale pricing from many of the local producers and says their monthly Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) reimbursement more than covers the costs of local and organic foods. She also learned that CACFP offers reimbursement for plants, seeds, and vegetables grown by the Center.
Heidi says she really enjoys the Farm to ECE Collaborative and the energetic staff, so much so that she decided to become one of seven mentors for other centers in North Carolina. As a co-leader of an Affinity group for center directors, Heidi helps to facilitate monthly meetings to discuss food and gardening and support other centers in meeting their Farm to ECE goals. The Chatham County Partnership for Children and their Child Care Health Consultant, Dorothy Rawleigh, has also helped Sonflower Seeds with connecting with farmers, other centers nearby, and purchasing materials for raised bed gardens.
“So much of children’s time is spent eating, why not make the quality of the food a priority?” Heidi’s advice for other centers considering Farm to ECE: “You have to be willing to do trial and error. Try to meet a farmer every month, and be willing to collaborate with other directors nearby. Just give it a try!”
Interested in getting started with sourcing locally? Check out these local food purchasing resources from the NC Farm to ECE Initiative.