Garden beds, part of the Snohomish Conservation District's Lawns to Lettuce program.

The USDA Farm to School Grant is an annual, competitive grant that supports the planning, development, and implementation of farm to school and farm to ECE programs. USDA's Farm to School grants are an important way to help state, regional, and local organizations as they initiate, expand, and institutionalize their farm to school and farm to ECE efforts. As Farm to ECE has gained popularity, there has been a notable increase in USDA Farm to School grantees working on farm to ECE efforts. Since 2018, the number of grantees focusing on farm to ECE has increased, with three grantees in 2019, five in 2020, and 19 in 2021. The Snohomish Conservation District and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants/Erie Field Office are two 2021 grantees dedicating their efforts to farm to ECE. This month, we will explore the inspiring work these grantees have envisioned for their communities. 

Snohomish Conservation District - Lake Stevens, Washington Grant Type: Implementation
The Snohomish Conservation District is planning to use their grant funding to build comprehensive farm to ECE programs at five Snohomish County Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) sites. ECEAP a program funded by Washington State for children 3 and 4 years old. Partnering with Snohomish County Cooperative Extension SNAP-Ed, The Snohomish Conservation District plans to expand the growing capacity of on-site gardens, instruct educators on how to implement a garden curriculum, and provide experiential education by conducting field trips to nearby farms, implementing cooking demonstrations and tastings with local produce, and providing classroom educational resources.To enhance family engagement, they also plan on providing a cookbook at the end of the grant to the families involved, using both recipes submitted by families and recipes that use produce growing in the on-site gardens that families may be less familiar with. 

Joe Crumbley, Snohomish Conservation District’s Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator, explained how the USDA Farm to School Grant will help them expand the growing capacity of the on-site gardens. “Through the grant, we are able to fund raised garden beds, composting systems, drip irrigation attached to rain barrels, and sheet mulching to reduce weeding labor. We’re also developing perennial gardens and are planning to plant native fruiting edible plants. All these strategies will reduce the amount of labor and upkeep involved while increasing the amount we can grow and harvest. All this extra growing capacity will make it possible for us to use our harvest in meals and snacks at the sites,” he explained. 

Though Snohomish Conservation District has previously worked with schools through their youth education program, this is their first time stepping into farm to ECE. Joe was connected to their ECEAP partner sites through the Conservation District’s Lawns to Lettuce program, a program that offers cost-share opportunities up to $500 to help applicants working on urban agriculture projects. ECEAP programs applied for funding, and Joe saw an opportunity for crossover with the Conservation District’s youth education program. As they began establishing the opportunity, it spread through word of mouth and other ECEAP programs jumped at the chance to get involved. Integrating early learning sites into their youth education work seemed like a natural conclusion due to the benefits farm to ECE provides. “We pivoted to ECEAP centers because long term garden maintenance is easier. There’s less pushback, staff are on-site year round to help with maintenance, and there’s less red tape to serve our harvest on-site and to families,” Joe explained. This opportunity for sustainable gardens is what sold farm to ECE to the rest of his team. 

When choosing which sites to prioritize for the grant project, Joe used website tools like the Washington State Department of Health’s Environmental Health Disparities Map, USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas, and CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index map to ensure they targeted communities who are underserved and are experiencing food and local food access issues, as these communities can especially benefit from farm to ECE. He also made sure to review the pollution of local waterways. This is because replacing lawns with more permeable surfaces, such as gardens, can be beneficial. He believes this systematic approach to partnerships that maximizes benefits to children and communities both physically and environmentally can be used by others working in farm to ECE and considering applying for USDA Farm to School funding. 

U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants/Erie Field Office- Erie, Pennsylvania Grant Type: Turnkey
In Erie, Pennsylvania, the field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI Erie) is working to create an edible garden in partnership with its childcare center who works with families who arrived as refugees or immigrants. Produce from the garden will be used in farm to ECE activities, meals and snacks and sent home with families. The garden is an extension of USCRI Erie’s Flagship Farms venture. Dylanna Grasinger, Director of the Erie field office, explained Flagship Farms as a program that “takes individuals who want to farm or want to grow food for their families and trains them with hands-on activities. We also use the produce from the garden at our childcare center.” According to Grasinger, creating a garden that the children can learn and play in seemed like a natural extension of what they were already doing. 

USCRI Erie is committed to engaging with community members to make sure their program is strong, sustainable, and reflective of the community's wants and needs. To achieve this goal, they’ve reached out to community members and are developing a farm to table committee. Members include the local school district, local markets and restaurants, the local health department, and other organizations. They also plan to have separate conversations with families once the committee has begun their work. Considering USCRI Erie’s community-based approach, it’s no surprise that Dylanna recommends working with communities to build sustainable and effective programs. “It’s so important to take a holistic approach to this work and get community buy-in,” she explained.