Creative Opportunities for Funding Farm to Early Care and Education (ECE): USDA Farm to School Grant

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November 16, 2021

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. 

Farm to ECE 10th Anniversary Celebration: The New Leaders

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August 31, 2021

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of National Farm to School Network’s launch into farm to early care and education (farm to ECE), Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow, sat down with the original trailblazers of farm to ECE and the new leaders in the movement. These inspiring women shared their perspectives on the growth, innovations, and successes they’ve seen, what the future holds for farm to ECE, and what is needed to continue building an equitable and sustainable movement. 

Participants: 

Andrea Lopez, Food and Wellness Program Officer, CentroNia  

Caroline Stover, Project Director, Center for Environmental Farming Systems

Brittany Martens, Nutrition Consultant and Farm to ECE Coordinator, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment

Wande Okunoren-Meadows, Executive Director, Little Ones Learning Center

This conversation took place with current leaders and innovators in the farm to ECE movement. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sophia: Please give us a general idea of how your organization or department does farm to ECE, what your role entails, and how you got your start in this work? 

Caroline: I run the farm to early care and education initiative in North Carolina. We are an initiative with the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, which is a three way partnership between the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and two land grant universities and North Carolina State University. Our initiative really seeks to promote farm to ECE and grow the movement in the state through systems level change. We connect early care and education system leaders at the state level with local food systems leaders. And so we do that through statewide stakeholder engagement, where we listen to folks on the ground who are really doing the work and spread their successes and make it easier for them to do farm to ECE. I've been doing this work since 2016. Before that, I was with FoodCorps, a Farm to School program, for four years. I have just really enjoyed bringing the farm to table movement to younger and younger children as I go on. 

Brittany:  I work for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for both the Child and Adult Care Food Program as well as the Early Childhood Obesity Prevention unit. We are working to lift farm to ECE with systems thinking since 2016, which is when I got hired and we started our first Team Nutrition farm to ECE grant. That was a three year grant focusing on culinary training, gardening and curriculum. Since then we have focused our programming and funding on trying to overcome barriers and understand them through community based programming. We're also currently working on our farm to ECE coalition, which is two years in, and we have about 25 members and 18 organizations helping to align farm to ECE across the state, bringing diverse voices to the table. We're hoping to increase our membership, helping to represent populations we serve and those historically underserved communities. We’re doing this through an Association of State Public Health Nutrition grant, which is allowing us to implement nine community based mini grants and build a three year Colorado farm ECE roadmap. Additionally, we're going to be releasing our first curriculum that's Colorado specific for our Harvest of the Month program. I’m coming from a background both as a chef and a nutritionist. So I love having the perspective of both fields, trying to connect with the cooks and think about their day in and day out and how to make this programming work for them. 

Wande: I am with Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia. Our organization is actually part of a five group initiative with the WK Kellogg Foundation. We’re all about increasing the quality of early childcare programs and communities, supporting the state, and bringing it to scale. Our program can be considered a model demonstration site. We do a lot of implementation programming here, because it's important to see proof of concept. We've been doing this work for many years but it doesn't mean that we have all the answers. I've also launched a nonprofit that is focused on farm to ECE. It's called the Hand Heart and Soul Project, where we provide children and families access to nutrient dense foods and we develop holistic programming focused on health, wellness, education and nutrition programs. I'm focused on making sure that the voices that are doing this work are elevated. People in policy are absolutely needed, but we also need to hear from the boots on the ground. We say farm to ECE should not be a burden, but without the right supports in place it becomes a burden for teachers and everybody else. 

Andrea: I work in an organization called CentroNia. We're a nonprofit organization providing high quality bilingual, early childhood education in a multicultural environment in Washington DC. We also have a site in Tacoma Park, Maryland. Within our early childhood services, we have the food and wellness department, which is a wraparound service, and that's my role in the organization as program officer. My role entails operating the child nutrition program, so right now that’s the CACFP Summer Meals Program. We also have a central catering company that is specific to ECE centers. We also do CACFP compliant catering to a wide range of centers, they can be small, maybe 25 to 30 children up to other centers who have 100 children throughout the district. 

We also work with food access programs. We partnered with a fresh farm organization that brings pop up markets to ECE centers. We were a pilot center in 2018 and are still doing that with SNAP and WIC eligible families, bringing them fresh fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis. I've been with CentroNia for the past three and a half years. My background is in nutrition, so in this position, I've learned a lot about community nutrition. My special interest is in encouraging people to try new foods, and especially at a young age to develop their palate. 

Sophia: Wande, I’d love to hear from your perspective how this movement has changed and grown since you became involved. Either in your center or the movement as a whole?

Wande: It's picked up a lot of interest, but that might be because it's trendy. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Whatever we can do to bring health and wellness to communities. We've seen it branch out with teachers and families now wanting to participate in the movement. Also, now that the government is taking part with federal funding streams that are focused on health and wellness and equity, everybody wants to jump in, which can lead to mission creeping. Not everyone needs to be applying for this funding. So it's great that everybody wants to get involved, but we do need to make sure that money remains for those doing the work and not allow mission creepers to come into our industry.

Sophia: Brittany, from your perspective working in government, what growth have you seen? 

Brittany: With our first grant application, we were pretty much begging people to apply. If they applied, they got a grant, and we had maybe five people who actually applied and got a grant. And this year, in a pandemic, during a time when childcare providers are understaffed, overworked and stressed out, we received 78 applications. I was blown away by the momentum that we have seen, and I think it has to do with our ability to bring in stakeholders. With our coalition, we have grown so much and are expanding as much as we can to bring everyone into farm to ECE, making sure that we're talking to every person who touches childcare or farm or food system work. We hear what they want to do and start speaking the same language. For example, the cultural wellness program is trying to encourage local food in their cultural cooking classes and Cooking Matters knows how to bring us in so that we can provide farmers market education. I really think that that has driven our momentum and has helped us to have a louder voice. I have to agree that it is becoming trendier and people are starting to buy into it. We've been saying forever that we have to step away from the instant gratification, we have to teach children to slow down and to be connected to their food and to step away from processed foods and to take the time to cook for children, and it's starting to catch on. I think that that's what's really been driving Colorado; we're starting to speak with a unified voice. 

Sophia: Andrea, I'd love to hear from you what you think your largest contribution to farm to ECE has been?

Andrea: Farm to ECE was really the priority of my past supervisor. She brought nutritious meals to the Columbia Heights area in Washington DC and built an all around program. The meals that we used to serve included processed foods and now we cook from scratch. It's a learning process for our cooks to figure out how to get produce from local sources and try to manipulate that into something doable in our menus. So again, working with families, immigrant communities, and meeting them halfway to not only push this healthy lifestyle, but offer CSA bags with maybe a produce item that they have never tried before and being very aware of their cultural standpoint and where they're coming from. We focus on traditions. We are aware that we work with working parents, but we try to tell parents that they could conserve their traditions and expose children to the home cooked meals they grew up eating. Traditional food is healthier food, but more importantly, that might be their only connection to their culture. 

Sophia: Caroline, what do you think your largest contribution to this movement has been?

Caroline: Our initiative. We have seen a lot of spread here. I also have loved that we've been able to promote the work that folks have been doing for a really long time. There's such great examples of folks that have been doing this work for so long and they have been such great advocates for continuing and spreading the work, speaking with their legislators and the childcare commission, and really just making farm to ECE front row center. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to have met those folks and learn from them.

Sophia: Where do you all see farm to ECE moving as a whole? 

Wande: We had a farm stand that was shut down by the city a couple of years ago and the media interviewed the city manager, and they asked her, “why are you shutting the farm stand down?” The city manager said, if we allow a farmstand at this center, there could be farmstands everywhere. That means she has no idea what access issues are, what transportation issues are, and how health and education correlate. So, for me, the next 10 years looks like people in charge understanding what it means to take care of communities, because if you don't have people supporting communities, then when you have local funding coming through, they're not going to allocate it in ways that are supportive to this movement. So I’m looking for better informed policymakers and other people that are in these positions of power.

Brittany: I want to go off of what you [Wande] just said, because I absolutely agree with that. I want to see less of the higher ups, like the state agency, creating the grant program and more of the communities creating the grant programs, which is what we're working for right now. I don't want to have all the money, I want all the money to go to the communities and I want them to build the programming. Right now our nine community based programs are doing work that I never could have fathomed. They are impacting communities, they are working with children who are separated at the border, and they are trying to mitigate the trauma they've experienced. And they are bringing that to the garden. They're working with autistic children and getting nonverbal children to play with worms and talk to their worm when they haven't spoken that many words in a month. I mean, it's the type of work that I don't say I have to go to work, I say that I get to, I get to do this work. And I can't wait to see more money going to the communities and less people saying make a kale salad, because it's good for you. And that's where I see this going as well. I couldn't agree with you more that we need to get the policy in line with that, and the funding in line with that, so that the people in the communities can tell us what they need, and they can put it out there and meet those needs.

Andrea: You know, sometimes with these grants, they build a framework and it's one size fits all. With diet and nutrition, we're steering away from that individualization but for farm to ECE we need individualization. It's very different in urban settings where there might not be space for a garden and you need to adjust. So when the community speaks to what is relevant to them, what is sustainable to them in the long run, it’s always a good thing. 

Caroline: Pragmatically speaking, thinking about local food procurement, we often say that there’s a benefit for farmers with the increased market for them. But when we look at local food procurement, we're talking about tablespoons as serving sizes, we're talking about centers that serve very few children. It definitely benefits the children, but how can we make it more beneficial for farmers? So that's something that we started looking into, and we're excited to tap more into that by networking centers, coordinating menus, working with head starts a little more, and maybe combining sarm to school and farm to ECE efforts. Some of the folks that we work with throughout the state are already trying to do some of those really cool methods. Also, I know folks on this call have also mentioned working with infants and toddlers and that just gets me really excited. Having consistency from birth to preschool to the school cafeteria. We've been working with local cooperative extension agents, and they have done a fabulous job with folks that are new to gardening and new to cooking fresh food. They've gotten right on board going into the centers and helping with that gardening piece, recruiting volunteers for folks and doing some family engagements and parent training, things like that. I think there's just such an opportunity for sustainability using systems that already exist and making sure that this work continues.

Farm to ECE 10th Anniversary Celebration: The Early Leaders

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August 31, 2021

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of National Farm to School Network’s launch into farm to early care and education (farm to ECE), Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow, sat down with the original trailblazers of farm to ECE and the new leaders in the movement. These inspiring women shared their perspectives on the growth, innovations, and successes they’ve seen, what the future holds for farm to ECE, and what is needed to continue building an equitable and sustainable movement. 

Participants: 

Emily Jackson, Program Director, Growing Minds Farm to School, ASAP  

Zoe Phillips, Director of Administration, Office of Women’s Health, LA County Department of Public Health 

Stacey Sobell, Director of People & Culture, Ecotrust 

This conversation took place with the original leaders in farm to ECE and Co-Leads of the original NFSN Farm to Preschool Subcommittee. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Sophia: Please tell us briefly where you were in your career during your time on the subcommittee and why you decided to invest time into supporting the start of farm to ECE? 

Zoe: 10 years ago I was with UEPI, the Urban Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College, working under Bob Gottlieb. I started back in 2009 as a volunteer. I received my Masters in Public Health in the Spring of 2008. While I was looking for jobs, I bugged him until he gave me an internship. He gave me a set of different projects that he thought could show some promise. At the time I had a preschooler, and he mentioned what we were calling farm to preschool as a potential project. I started immediately writing grants and doing some program planning and development. The grants were awarded and that was the start of my baby. Around April 2009, I created a pilot program for farm to preschool.

Emily: I work with the Appalachian Sustainable Agricultural Project in Asheville, North Carolina. 10 years ago, I was the Program Director for Growing Minds and today, I'm still the Program Director, but I'm retiring this year. We started doing farm to preschool back in 2007. When we first started the subcommittee I was serving as the Southeast Regional lead for the National Farm to School Network, Stacey was the Northwest lead with Ecotrust, and Zoe's organization was one of the core institutions housing the network. So, I was lucky enough to work with them and push this movement into fruition. 

Stacey: 10 years ago I was at Ecotrust, where I still work. I'm in a different role now, doing more people oriented human resources work, but I was in the Farm to School program in our Food and Farms team for about a decade. When I first started, my boss was really excited about getting farm to preschool going, so we did a pilot. After we did that pilot, we received a lot of inquiries, just because there wasn't much information online except from Emily, Zoey, and myself. 

Sophia: What did participating on the farm to preschool subcommittee involve for each of you? 

Emily: Our overarching goal was to grow this movement, since it was nascent at that time. Each of us also spearheaded different work with our own work groups. I was really interested in taking this upstream and embedding this in the community college programs so we could train providers while they're in school - and happy update - it's been a long journey, but we now are working with 22 of the 58 community colleges in North Carolina and hopefully we'll see that number grow even more in the next couple of years. But, the experience of working nationally and getting input from people really helped me see what was needed and how to best navigate that work. 

Zoe: It was very exciting to discover that we had these three different programs in different parts of the country that had been developed somewhat around the same time. Once the three of us got together, we were able to look forward and pool our resources, the best practices we had developed, and the challenges that we had gone through to lead the subcommittee. It was a really special point in time and we got along really well. We shared leading responsibilities for the subcommittee, we were able to help grow the members of the subcommittee so that it was far ranging, from small community based organizations to academia to the CDC. Eventually our program at UEPI moved into other states in the West and we even partnered with a Montessori school with the Navajo Nation. But together, the three of us were able to help build the movement on a national level. 

Sophia: What do you think was your greatest accomplishment while working to bring together the Farm to Preschool movement? Or, in your own farm to Preschool work?

Zoe: I came into this having no gardening experience. I had a health education background and nutrition background, but learning how to garden, how to teach preschool aged kids and their teachers how to garden, and how to find ways to make it economical was so great. Watching the kids dig in the dirt in an urban setting was also incredible to see. I remember one time, we had asked the nutrition director who oversaw a set of preschools if she would start introducing more vegetables, and she said, “well, if I see the kids eat it, then yes, I'll bring them in.” So we had a cauliflower taste test with a lesson plan and we collected the data to show that kids were actually eating it, enjoying it, and wanting more of it, so they put it on the menu. So that was gratifying to see. Also, the building of our website. We were able to bring in partners from all over the country and share their resources and tools on the website, which was special. 

Emily: The three of us showed the network what great promise there was in this and why the network should invest resources and time. So the years that we all spent together trying to build this movement just really paid off in that way. I think that was a great accomplishment. We grew it to where it needed to be and then the network took it over, which was fabulous. The other thing that I'm proud of is creating those critical resources with my organization to make things easy. We have a farm to preschool toolkit that is now being sold all across the country. And in that toolkit is something that the North Carolina Network created together, which we call reach for the stars, which takes the star rating and aligns it to preschool activities. Another piece of the toolkit is the crosswalk between our lesson plans, which are very experiential, and CACFP guidelines. So the children are not only getting a local, healthy snack, but they're also getting the education associated with that product. 

Sophia: Can you speak to the growth that you’ve seen overtime? Is the state of the movement today where you thought it would be 10 years ago? 

Emily: The Association of State Public Health Nutritionists, or ASPHN, pulled down CDC money and were able to distribute that to states for farm to ECE work. North Carolina, along with 10 other states and the District of Columbia received funding. To me, that shows some strength, that there is a lot of infrastructure out there for this, and that it’s growing. It’s a lot harder than K12. They're so much more underfunded and there's a lot of entrenched problems with early care and education. So I think it's even more of a success that we've been able to build out the infrastructure that exists now, with the leadership of the National Farm to School Network, of course. This ASPHN grant is an example of the success of the movement. 

Zoe: I have been a little more removed from it for a while, but have kept in touch with what's happening, particularly in Los Angeles. So it's exciting to hear the developments for the movement, and that it's happening at a local level, state level and national level. 10 years ago, it was our dream that it could develop to that point. There's also been improvements in offering funding at the national level but if there could be even more, that would be better, because funding is really what supports this work. 

Sophia: What do you see as the future of farm to ECE? What do you envision? Any promising opportunities? 

Stacey: I'm thinking about a lot of what my work is focused on right now. We’re putting more of a racial justice focus and anti racist kind of lens to that work, and I know that Farm School Network is also doing a lot of work around that. 

Emily: I hope with the current administration that we're going to see more funding. I think the pandemic showed a lot of things about our country, and one is that our infrastructure for early care and education is just vastly underfunded. So, hopefully, we're going to see more universal child care. That'll also raise up racial equity issues while making room for things like farm to preschool, because people hopefully won't be struggling so much with the funding issue.

Zoe: I think it is hugely important that this movement can find a role in helping decrease structural racism, improve disparities, and move towards improving food insecurity. Having a farm to preschool program in any type of early care setting as a default would be incredible. If it became the norm it would be fantastic, where they're getting food, and bolstering the farmers. 
Emily: Just think of all the joy and wonder out there if every kid could be exposed to a garden. That could be a beautiful thing.

Creative Opportunities for Funding Farm to ECE: Sugar Sweetened Beverage Taxes

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August 31, 2021

By Sophia Riemer, Programs Fellow

Taxing sugar sweetened beverages (SSB) is a policy strategy that is gaining momentum as a way to decrease sugar consumption, improve the health and wellbeing of communities, and raise revenue for health promotion, food access, and equity related efforts. Boulder, Colorado and Seattle, Washington are two cities that have enacted a SSB tax and have dedicated a portion of the funds raised to farm to early care and education efforts. This month, we will take a look at the comprehensive and inspiring work these cities have been able to accomplish with the help of these funds.

A Natural Fit for Priority Funding
Seattle’s Farm to Table initiative and Boulder’s farm to ECE program work to bring healthy, local foods and hands-on experiences such as gardening and food education activities to their communities. In Seattle, tax fund distribution prioritizes early childhood education and food access: a natural fit for farm to ECE. “We can address these two crucial areas, nourishing these children and improving very underpaid providers’ access to healthy foods,” explained Leika Suzumura, Farm to Table consultant. Thanks to SSB funding, these programs have been true successes, supporting participating sites with the tools and resources needed to create comprehensive farm to ECE programming such as nutrition and garden education, technical assistance, and funds for local food purchasing and gardening tools.

The sugar sweetened beverage tax funds have been integral to the growth of these programs. Once Boulder’s tax was passed in 2016 and the program was able to secure funding, they hired Heather Haurswirth as the farm to ECE coordinator. With a new dedicated staff member, the program greatly expanded. “We started in 2015 with 4 child care programs. We grew to 12 programs in 2016, 37 programs in 2018, 54 programs in 2019, 68 programs in 2020, and now 75 programs in 2021,” explained Hauswirth. This past year they even started to offer additional produce to cities outside of Boulder with limited food access. Seattle’s Farm to Table also brought on more staff with tax funds, first received in 2018, enabling them to greatly expand their program. Increased staff capacity has also allowed them to spend time on developing long term plans that focus on increasing the quality and reach of the program.

A Community Asset During COVID
Both the Seattle and Boulder team explained how invaluable the SSB tax funding became during COVID when food security and food access plummeted. Families still needed to feed their children, so the programs took action and began to send food home with families. This was critical, as Seattle farmer’s markets were closed and store shelves were empty, limiting farmers’ selling opportunities and households’ access to healthy, fresh food. “We were able to respond and build even stronger relationships with our sites. We’re cultivating that trust,” explained Kelly Okumura, Farm to Table’s program manager.

Okumura went on to explain how critical building these relationships has been to the success of Farm to Table. During a visit to a center that had not fully participated in local food procurement, Okumura was able to meet Ms. Patrice, the kitchen lead. “It was magical meeting Ms. Patrice,” Okumura said. “She told me ‘now that I know who you are, I’m going to order the food.’ The shift was visceral.”

The COVID-19 experience also had an impact on how participants in Boulder’s program, and in turn, the program administrators themselves, saw theprogram’s role in the community. “Last year the most profound feedback we received was the increase in food accessibility due to our program. Because of the pandemic, we felt like we were playing a role,” explained Hauswirth. Boulder is now looking to the future to see how they can expand food access through their program. “We’d love to engage with more organizations across the city or county. There’s so many different places our program can go.”

Growing Imagination
Both Boulder and Seattle have used SSB tax funds to give children a healthy start in life, improve the quality of childcare, and provide families with vital assistance. However, as both programs made sure to note, the true value of farm to ECE comes in the excitement and sense of wonder it creates. Suzumura and Okumura shared stories about children rushing out of class to see what’s in that day’s deliver box and finding seemingly magical produce like purple potatoes, rainbow carrots, and lions mane mushrooms; tasting foods like local chickens that, as Ms. Patrice noted, just smell better; seeing worms squirm around in soil; and planting a few potatoes and harvesting four buckets full. These experiences not only teach children to appreciate the fun and often mysterious place our natural environment can be, but can lead to naturally healthier children, both mentally and physically. As Hauswith explained, “certain kids wouldn’t touch a brussel sprout or a tomato, but went on a field trip to a farm, or saw it in their produce box, or grew it in their garden, and now they're asking for it at home or eating it at lunch. It’s something we see time and time again and it always makes me smile. That the intention of the program is actually working.”

This blog was originally posted on August 9, 2021.

Creative Opportunities For Strengthening Farm to ECE Through Emerging Federal Funding Streams

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August 31, 2021

By Sophia Riemer, Programs Intern

The latest round of federal stimulus funding - the American Rescue Plan (ARP) - will be infusing billions of dollars through the early care and education sector and food and agriculture systems in the coming months. While severely devastated by the COVID-19 emergency and subsequent economic crisis, both of these sectors are ripe with opportunity to build back with greater equity and resiliency. Farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) can be a component of building back better. States will soon be making decisions about how this funding will be used and now is the time to provide information to and build relationships with decision makers to convey the needs and desires of your community, influence equitable use of funds, and elevate opportunities for farm to ECE. The following information summarizes content shared on the May webinar (recording available here) through a partnership with the Policy Equity Group, the Food Research and Action Center, and the National Farm to School Network. These emerging funding streams and the immediate opportunities are also highlighted in this infographic.

Early Care and Education
There are two key funding streams in early care and education to note, the Child Care & Development Block Grant (CCDBG), also known as the Child Care Subsidy Program, and Head Start & Early Head Start (HS/EHS). CCDBG provides federal funding to states, territories, and tribes to be used for financial assistance to help eligible families to afford and access childcare. States are required to use a portion of funds to improve program quality or supply and quality of infant and toddler care, as well as provide professional development to providers. HS/EHS provides federal funding directly to local programs through a competitive grant process, with a focus on early learning and development, health and nutrition, and family engagement.

The ARP has created a huge opportunity via ample funding for early care and education. In addition, the funding is flexible and is meant for stabilization efforts, meaning it must be disseminated quickly.

Child Care Stabilization Funding ($24 Billion) and Child Care Assistance Funding ($15 Billion)
Child care stabilization funding, made available by the ARP, will go to both centers and family child care providers with the purpose of supporting ongoing operations and promoting stability. Funding can be used for a range of pandemic related needs such as operating expenses, personnel costs, rent, facility improvements, etc. States must obligate funds by Sept 30, 2022 and make payments by Sept 30 2023. Child Care Assistance Funding is flexible and will flow through CCDBG. Funds can be used to support quality, training and professional development, or infant care. States must obligate funds by Sept 30, 2022 and make payments by Sept 30, 2024.

There are multiple uses for stabilization funds that align with farm to ECE. Namely rent, including facilities maintenance and improvements through minor renovations (major renovations are not allowable), goods and services necessary to maintain or resume childcare including anything that will be necessary to a childcare program, and mental health supports for children and employees. For example, facility maintenance and improvements can mean better kitchen and food storage equipment and mental health support can mean investing in gardens and green spaces due to farm to ECE’s social emotional benefits. Additionally, it is encouraged to treat goods and services as a broad term to meet grantees’ needs, specifically shared services, food services, and other learning and eating specific activities.

When considering these funds, make sure to:

  • Learn about your state’s process for distributing CARES Act stimulus funding and check for ways to improve upon equitable design and distribution of funds.
  • Collaborate with partners on strategy development. Staying informed on what advocates in your state are already doing can help in this process.
  • Serve as an information resource for providers on allowable funding uses that align with farm to ECE goals.
  • Provide input on your state’s 2022-2024 child care plan, which outlines how childcare dollars will be spent, as this is an opportunity to institutionalize farm to ECE in the state childcare plan by showcasing coordination and partnerships.


Head Start and Early Head Start ($1 Billion)
Head Start also received additional funding through the ARP, translating to $400 more per Early Head Start child and $300 more per Head Start child. There is a great amount of flexibility with this funding, with goals to reach more families, prepare facilities for in-person services, and support Head Start employees. Community needs are a determining factor in the application and budgeting process so it is important to be informed on the perspectives of families and providers.

Opportunities for alignment with farm to ECE include purchase of kitchen equipment and supplies to support in-person meal service, enhancement of outdoor learning spaces, professional development on farm to ECE related topics, and other locally determined actions necessary to resume full in-person operations, which allows a case for farm to ECE by providing evidence of impact.

Make sure to locate your local HS/EHS grantees and your Head Start Collaboration office and begin to build relationships. Engage HS/EHS program directors and advocate for farm to ECE’s alignment with Head Start Program Performance Standards and the Early Learning Outcomes Framework via training, materials, and expertise. National Farm to School Network’s Growing Head Start Success with Farm to Early Care and Education highlights how farm to ECE elements can address these domains and standards.

Food and Agriculture
There are also opportunities specific to food and agriculture that can be utilized for farm to ECE, namely the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) and the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). These two programs are paired together as part of the local agricultural markets program that was created by the 2018 Farm Bill and have received additional funding through the ARP.

Local Food Promotion Program and the Farmer’s Market Promotion Program ($47 Million)
Both the LFPP and the FMPP can provide funding for organizations and programs that are looking to build their capacity to source locally and support the local food system. The FMPP provides support for projects like farmers markets, direct to consumer opportunities, and direct producer to institutional marketing. The LFPP funds projects that expand the capacity of regional food business enterprises that engage intermediaries for local products, such as food hubs. Due to relief funding, there is $47 million extra available on top of normal annual funding. These funds do not have to be used for COVID specific projects, leading to a high degree of flexibility for allowable projects.The additional funding most benefits early phase projects and organizations that purchase on a smaller scale as there is a reduced cost share of the normal 25% down to 10%. However, if organizations want to apply for a larger tranche of funding, they can still do so with a 25% match. The deadline for grant applications is June 21st.  

Specialty Crop Block Grant ($100 Million)
Specialty Crop Block Grant opportunities are administered directly to the state. These grants are able to fund development, promotion, infrastructure, and capacity for speciality production, research, and marketing in states. Normally, this funding cannot benefit individual businesses, producers, and organizations. However, this year there is significantly more flexibility in allowable projects than normal. Apply through your state by the June 11th deadline.

Health and Nutrition Programs
There are two funding opportunities within the federal food programs, one in the Child and  Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and one in Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

CACFP ($42 Billion)
CACFP is a program that provides reimbursements to early learning program providers for nutritious meals and snacks to enrolled children. CACFP operators can procure local food directly from producers through avenues such as food hubs, farmers markets, and CSA models. Funds can be used for gardening items such as seeds, fertilizer, watering cans, rakes, etc. as long as the produce that is grown in the garden is part of reimbursable CACFP meals and snacks. State administrative funding can also be used to provide technical assistance and coordination of farm to ECE activities.

The USDA has issued a waiver that extends higher Tier 1 meal reimbursement rates to all family childcare homes. To be eligible for the higher reimbursement rate prior to the waiver, a program had to be in a neighborhood with 50% or more low income or free and reduced price meal enrollment at the neighborhood school. This eligibility waiver will lead to a significant increase in reimbursement, translating to an extra $53 per child per month, assuming breakfast, lunch, and snack are served in the program. This extra reimbursement can support efforts to improve quality food in early learning programs through farm to ECE.  

Enhanced WIC Produce Benefits ($490 Million)
WIC is a federal nutrition program that provides low income nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, infants, and children with vouchers for food, nutrition education, breastfeeding support and health care referrals. There will be a four month fruit and vegetable benefit increase starting in June 2021. Benefits will rise from $9 a month for children and $11 a month for women to $35 a month for each woman and child. Benefits can be used at all WIC approved vendors, including farmer’s markets and roadside stands in some states. This benefit increase introduces opportunities for action as it may incentivize those who did not use their benefits at the farmer’s market previously because of time, cost, or other barriers.

To take advantage of this opportunity, learn more about the benefit increase and advocate to your state WIC agency to create and disseminate an outreach plan to increase WIC enrollment and perform outreach to early learning programs, parents, farmers markets and roadside stands.

Advocacy Opportunities
There are additional advocacy opportunities available with the ARP due to the funding’s allocation flexibility and broad goals which are highly applicable to stakeholders in the early care community. Upcoming opportunities include the ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, which presents $350 billion for local, territorial, and Tribal governments. Specific goals for the funding include assistance to households, small businesses, or nonprofits; premium pay for essential workers; and mitigation of pandemic-related budget shortfalls. Much will be left up to state and local governments on how to use these funds. There is also the State and Small Business Credit Initiative, which provides $1.5 billion to states to support businesses owned by “socially and economically disadvantaged people”, $1 billion for an incentive program to boost funding tranches for states that show robust support for such businesses, and $500 million to support very small businesses with fewer than 10 employees.

There is opportunity for influence and advocacy as decisions are made around the funding by identifying goals that can support the childcare sector. Specifically, because this funding can address budgetary shortfalls, look for items that have been cut in budget cycles this year or last year due to the pandemic. There is also a large focus on how these funds can stimulate the economy, which aligns well with messaging around jobs and business ownership in the early care sector. Make sure to leverage existing relationships and the multiple avenues for advocacy outside of the nutrition space, communicating through state departments focused on small business and economic development.

Resources

This blog was originally posted on June 22, 2021.

Innovations in Farm to ECE: Growing the Next Generation of Providers

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August 31, 2021

Photo Credit: ASAP Growing Minds / WCCA King Creek

By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

North Carolina's Growing Minds Farm to School Program – a project of Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) – has dedicated themselves to an upstream approach to expanding farm to ECE through Growing Minds @ Community Colleges, an effort to embed farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) curriculum into soon-to-be early care providers’ education and coursework in community colleges across the state. Growing Minds provides an abundance of resources to instructors looking to incorporate farm to ECE programming into their coursework, including presentations, workshops, and a comprehensive toolkit. Gwen Hill, Growing Minds’ Program Coordinator, explained the reasoning behind the approach. “We are very focused on training the trainers because we know there will never be enough nonprofits to put a garden educator into every school. We need to educate people who are already working in preschools about the basics of farm to ECE so they can be the trainers.” This approach is not new to Growing Minds, as seen through their Growing Minds @ University program that has been running since 2011, where farm to school curriculum is built into college coursework for dietetic interns and education students.

So far, Growing Minds @ Community Colleges has been a success. The program was first piloted with Blue Ridge Community College and truly launched in 2019 in 22 of the 58 colleges in the state.Through this program they’ve been able to deepen existing relationships while building many new ones, in part due to the excitement surrounding the program. One organization, Ashe County Partnership for Children, was so excited about the mission of Growing Minds @ Community College that they reached out to Growing Minds and offered to implement the farm to ECE trainings both at their organization and at their local college, after the college explained that they didn’t have the time to implement it themselves.

Beyond its own programming, Growing Minds also co-facilitates the North Carolina Farm to Preschool Network, partnering with a coalition of organizations to promote farm to ECE statewide. “As we continue to grow the North Carolina Farm to ECE Network, we’ll continue to look for ways we can build those symbiotic relationships and tie the work we’re doing with the network with the community colleges that are imbedding this coursework,” explained Hill. Growing Minds @ Community College is also hoping to go more in depth with the community colleges they are currently working with through monthly newsletters, development of more lesson plans and resources, and providing mini-grants to students in the program who are already working in early learning programs to implement farm to ECE and provide feedback.

Even with their early success, Growing Minds @ Community College hasn’t been without its bumps in the road. COVID presented the largest challenge to the blossoming program. Early care priorities shifted with the transition to virtual learning, leading to some slowed growth. Under normal circumstances, Growing Minds would be focusing on hands-on training, taking students through activities the children in their care would be doing such as crafts, taste tests and cooking demonstrations in order to get soon to-be providers excited. However, they are not letting these challenges stop them. Hill explained how they’ve been able to stay flexible. “We’ve found some creative ways to still connect with programs and progress.” They’ve converted their trainings to virtual platforms and have tried to increase communication, sending frequent email updates and doing virtual trainings over zoom. Understanding that early learning programs can be under-resourced in general, and even more so during COVID, Growing Minds @ Community College makes a point to always look for ways to make their trainings simple and user friendly while offering as much support as they can. They also emphasize how farm to ECE can be embedded into what providers are already doing. Hill explained, “this doesn’t have to be super fancy to be effective. You can get a sweet potato for a dollar, roast it up, do a taste test and then watch a ‘meet your farmer’ video. That’s all that’s needed to get kids excited about trying new vegetables and about farming.”

This blog was originally posted on April 19, 2021.

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Colorado's CACFP Matchmaking Survey

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August 31, 2021

By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

March 14-20, 2021 is National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part three of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series. Read Part 1: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program here and Part 2: Arizona's CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge here.

Colorado’s Addressing Knowledge Gaps with Educational Materials & a Matchmaking Survey

Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), along with state and local partners, have made efforts to address the knowledge related barriers to implementing farm to ECE. In 2016, using funding from a Team Nutrition Grant, Cooking Up Healthy Options with Plants (CHOP), they were able to develop full day culinary training across the state. However “not everyone could take the eight hours to attend and we couldn’t take the training everywhere we wanted to because of our travel budget limitations”, explained Brittany Martens, Nutrition Consultant and Farm to ECE Coordinator at CDPHE.

In partnership with Nourish Colorado, CDPHE developed Quick Bites, eight online videos covering food safety that take less than an hour to complete and are available in both Spanish and English. The intent was to use these online videos to draw in an audience for hands-on knife skills classes, however, due to COVID-19 the knife skills class was moved online. Special attention was paid to reducing barriers to online participation; the class was paired with technical assistance for those not used to virtual classrooms and two weeks before the class attendees were sent a box with a gift card to purchase materials, notes and handouts.

Martens explained the importance of the culinary training CDPHE has been able to offer, noting the high turnover of staff in CACFP centers. “We saw a need...we want centers to buy and use local produce, but if they don’t know how to use this produce they won’t buy it.” The training not only focuses on technical skills, but emphasizes empowerment, asking attendees to reflect on why they chose their career and the influence they have over a child’s lifetime habits. “That empowerment piece allows us to build those relationships...it brings the group together” Martens explained. She believes this, along with their wonderful chef instructor, are the reasons they’ve seen many repeat attendees. Empowerment, knowledge and skills can be a strong combination, and Colorado has seen the benefit. There has been an increase in fresh produce on menus since the implementation of the culinary classes and attendees are retaining the knowledge six months after the training.

Colorado is focusing its efforts on other common barriers to local food procurement as well. They have found the largest barriers to be cost, knowledge around how to find a farmer and storage space. CDPHE has addressed cost through a MiniCoIIn grant awarded by ASPHN, providing local produce to providers in the San Luis Valley. In 2020, they received their second MiniCoIIn grant, allowing them to send CSA boxes to home providers and families during quarantine.

They were able to address the barrier of finding farmers by creating a CACFP matching survey. Due to COVID-19, many farmers have lost their market, highlighting an opportunity to help both farmers and providers. Surveys for both providers and farmers were created and are online for any provider or farmer in the state. The survey gathers information on the needs and abilities of each party, allowing Martens to connect providers to appropriate farmers. According to Martens, this matchmaking process has succeeded in building relationships. “Farmers are planting entire rows this season for providers they were matched with because they know the center will purchase their produce.” When asked what advice she would give to other states looking to implement similar work, she highlighted the importance of community buy-in. “Working from the provider perspective and understanding their experience, what they know and see and where there is potential, is really important.”

This blog was originally posted on March 19, 2021.

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Arizona's CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge

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August 31, 2021

By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

March 14-20, 2021 is National Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part three of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series. Read Part 1: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program here.

Arizona’s Building Awareness & Efficacy with a CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge

Arizona’s Department of Education has found a way to build excitement, awareness and recognition around farm to ECE while honoring CACFP providers through a CACFP Farm Fresh Challenge that takes place during CACFP week. To finish the challenge, early care providers have to complete three tasks: serve at least one locally sourced CACFP meal component, host at least one activity that educates students where food comes from and share at least one social media post about the challenge.

Ashley Schimke, Farm to School Program Specialist at the Department of Education, Health and Nutrition Services, explained how the winners of the challenge receive a trophy. “Any state recognition carries weight for centers”, Schimke explained. There are other benefits to participating in the challenge as well, such as providing the opportunity for staff to do something fun and different.

In fact, the department decided to keep the challenge running through COVID-19 to deliver joy during difficult times for providers, meal service operators and children. The challenge has also helped to gain buy-in from the Department of Education staff themselves. “The challenge excited staff. They agreed it was an easy way to explain farm to ECE to partners”, said Schimke. The aim of the challenge is to inspire CACFP participants who want to start doing farm to ECE in a tangible, structured way. “The structure of the challenge provides a recipe for someone that doesn’t know where to start but gives them flexibility to do what makes sense for them”.

Schimke has received feedback from providers that local procurement is the most difficult component of farm to ECE, so the challenge focuses on small steps to provide easy wins for centers. Providers are asked to complete one instance of each action necessary to complete the challenge instead of the “3,2,1” model used in the other challenges the department hosts. They also created tiers for the procurement action. Those who have never procured locally can use local milk (which is often local by nature), those with some experience look for local swaps of produce that is already being purchased regularly, and those with extensive experience look for local foods such as meats, beans or grains they would like to purchase and find a locally sourced option. This way, those who come back every year can continue to challenge themselves to do more than the year they did previously.

Schimke hopes that they can continue this work and have centers who participate every year, making the challenge a normal part of their annual schedule. Schimke explained, “The access points [to source locally] are there, but it doesn’t happen without demand. By having an annual way to touch base, providers learn it’s possible to buy local- that it’s not as complicated as it seems.” She advised other states that want to implement a similar challenge to connect with National Farm to School Network partners for resources, but to make the challenge their own. “Take a look at your state’s goals and what your providers need.”

This blog was originally posted on March 17, 2021.

Innovations in Farm to CACFP: Iowa's Incentive Pilot Program

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August 31, 2021

By Sophia Riemer, NFSN Program Fellow

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is often described as the equivalent of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in ECE settings. Like the NSLP, CACFP is a federal reimbursement for meals and snacks available to child care centers. There is great opportunity to build partnerships between farm to ECE and CACFP, as engaging in farm to ECE not only aligns well with the CACFP meal pattern, but can help centers fulfill CACFP standards through gardening experiences and emphasizing nutritious, local and garden grown foods. This week, starting on Sunday March 14th, is National CACFP Week. CACFP Week aims to raise awareness of how USDA’s CACFP program works to combat hunger by providing healthy foods to child care centers, homes and afterschool programs across the country. Throughout National CACFP Week, we’re highlighting innovative and inspirational programs across the country working to better align farm to ECE and CACFP and increase awareness and participation. Below is part one of our three-part Farm to CACFP blog series.


How Iowa is Addressing Financial Barriers with a CACFP Incentive Pilot Program
Partners within the Iowa Farm to School and Early Care Coalition have been focusing on alleviating the financial barriers of local procurement for CACFP providers through a CACFP incentive pilot program. The pilot, Local Food Makes Cents: For Iowa Kids and Farmers, is funded through a Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation Grant (FIG) awarded from the Association of State Public Health Nutritionists (ASPHN) and offers over $40,000 to eligible centers and home providers participating in CACFP to purchase local foods.

Chelsea Krist, Iowa’s Farm to School Program Coordinator and co-lead on the FIG grant, shared the momentum building in Iowa’s early childhood education programs around local procurement. “There is interest, but the financial barrier can prohibit providers from purchasing local foods often or at all, so this pilot alleviates the risk of trying a new partnership and processing new foods so that financial risk isn’t directly on the provider.”

The coalition is not only piloting a mini grant program, but a new application process as well, prioritizing children enrolled in childcare assistance and sites serving higher numbers of children of color for the first time, a framework they plan to apply to other grants they are leading. “ECE contains the most diverse demographic in Iowa, so we need to be prioritizing that as we keep grants going”, said Krist.

The response to the grant was huge, with many more sites interested than they expected. The coalition was able to grant 120 providers with funding, representing a range of site types and sizes. Grantees are required to spend half of their award on fruits and vegetables and will be purchasing solely from farms, food hubs and farmers markets. The coalition hopes the grant will help build long lasting relationships between farmers and early care providers, with continued outreach and support to keep local food at these sites.

Through conversations with grantees, the coalition has found opportunities to address other barriers providers face and are now looking to allow CACFP or other state funding to be used for gardening tools and reimbursement for plants grown in the centers’ garden. Overall, Krist is looking forward to the opportunities this pilot can build. Ideally, the coalition hopes the program will live beyond the pilot in the Iowa Department of Education and will be state funded for ECE and K-12 sites. Her advice for other states considering a CACFP incentive pilot: “talk to states who have done this before, and know how much time this will take.”

This blog was originally posted on March 15, 2021.