The MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center offers up close experiences with goats and other animals as part of the Farm Sprouts Preschool Program.

By Lacy Stephens, MS, RDN, Farm to Early Care and Education Associate

Cooperative Extension programs have been bringing quality research and education to rural and urban communities for over 100 years. With the goal of offering practical information to improve the lives of agricultural producers, consumers, families, and children, extension is a natural fit for partnership in farm to school and farm to early care and education (ECE) initiatives. Across the U.S., extension provides a vital link to resources and information and builds connections between producers and communities, expanding opportunities for local procurement, gardening, and food and agriculture education in schools and ECE settings.

Extension supports farm to ECE efforts in a variety of ways with diverse models of success emerging in communities across the country. Some extension programs bring local foods, gardening, and food-based education directly to the ECE classroom. In Maricopa County, Ariz., University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has a family resource center housed in a school that serves Head Start families and children with special needs. The resource center features 15 raised garden beds as part of an outdoor learning center where extension staff engage children, parents, and teachers in “Play and Learn” workshops and professional development opportunities. University of Maryland Extension brings gardening along with food, nutrition, and wellness education to children and teachers at Head Start locations in Princess Anne, Md. Children plant seeds, learn about fruits and vegetables, and sing and dance to songs about healthy food through culturally adapted curriculum. Parents join in the fun, too, with family days offering healthy snacks and family gardening time.

Other extension models bring children to the farm for immersive experiences with food and agriculture. In Pima County, Ariz., at the Tucson Village Farm, young children and their parents dig into the Lil’ Sprouts Program to learn about a wide variety of food and agriculture topics from seeds to worms to farmers. As children are immersed in hands on, scientific discovery, parents gain understanding of the important skills children develop by working in the garden, from developing self-regulation as they wait for a radish to emerge from the soil to the math skills necessarily to evenly divide seeds for sprouting. At MSU Tollgate Farm and Education Center, the Farm Sprouts Preschool Program focuses on developing scientific thinking and understanding through discovery, experimentation, and sensory experiences. Young children explore the farm and contribute to the farm community by caring for the farm animals, tending and harvesting in the gardens, and engaging in meaningful projects. The program encompasses cross-institute components, within MSU Extension, related to child development, health and nutrition, natural resources, agriculture and food systems, environmental science, and global and cultural education.

Young students visit Down’s Produce as part of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative.

In other programs, extension agents act as liaisons and connections to local producers and support the integration of local foods into meals and snacks in ECE settings. The Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative aims to make the region a place where all people have access to healthy, local foods. One component of their multi-faceted approach is to integrate healthy, local food options into early care and education settings. One of the vital partners of the Initiative is Iowa State University Extension and Outreach which, through the development of the Iowa Food Hub, plays a primary role in production, access, and procurement of local food. In Wake County, N.C., the Wake County Farm to Child Care program has worked closely with county extension since the development of the project. In addition to helping to write the project plan, a local extension partner supports on-going connections with farmers and helped support the projects “farmer liaison” in understanding how farmers and ECE programs can work together. Through this partnership, Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) and cooperative extension staff also developed a series of publications titled "Local Foods: Childcare Center Production Gardens."

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture, in partnership with the National Farm to School Network, will be offering a webinar to share more about these and other extension and farm to ECE partnerships and project. Register here and join the webinar on March 14, at 2 PM ET. To learn more about how you can work with extension, find your local Cooperative Extension and check out tools and resources from extension at