New Resource! Lessons from COVID-19: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to ECE Implementation in States and Communities

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August 31, 2021

By National Farm to School Network and The Policy Equity Group, LLC

The Policy Equity Group and the National Farm to School Network, with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, are pleased to jointly release Lessons from the COVID-19 Experience: Innovations and Strategies for Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation in States and Communities. This brief captures how farm to early care and education (ECE) efforts at the state and community levels were initially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Informed by the experiences of food and early childhood partner organizations in five states – Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – the brief documents the systemic impacts of COVID-19 and the federal response from a farm to ECE perspective; describes how farm to ECE partner organizations adapted to the new context during the initial months of the pandemic; and provides recommendations for how states and communities can sustain the successful strategies implemented during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic had profound impacts across food and ECE systems that exacerbated inequities and racial injustices in food, health, and education. This system shock prompted and accelerated emerging education and food access trends, including increased demand for virtual learning and outdoor learning opportunities, like gardening for children and families. The shift to virtual platforms was echoed in demands for online training and professional development for ECE providers and in the food system, where everyone from agricultural producers to consumers moved to online marketplaces. Policy responses included increased flexibility in policy and regulation and increased investments in ECE and food systems through federal stimulus.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis and these emerging themes, farm to ECE stakeholders turned to innovative approaches to navigate challenges and meet the needs of children and families. Existing partnerships across food and ECE systems became vital, and many farm to ECE stakeholders deepened their engagement with emergency food organizations. These partnerships paved the way for farm to ECE initiatives, like family Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes, that supported immediate family needs and maintained a market for local producers. Partner organizations met the needs of families, providers, and producers by facilitating online learning, professional development, and facilitating the transition to online food sales and purchase. Farm to ECE stakeholders creatively layered funding coming from multiple sources to support these ongoing efforts.

As many states and ECE sites continue to stabilize and recover, sustaining these innovations could be beneficial in the short and long term. Maintaining relationships across food, early care, and emergency food assistance stakeholders builds community resilience and can increase access to local foods for all families. Continued opportunities for virtual training and building infrastructure for online marketplaces opens the accessibility of education and local foods to more ECE providers and families. Importantly, the flexibility offered in child nutrition programs should be extended or built into a more permanent policy approach to continue increased access to meals and reduced paperwork burden for providers. The figure below provides a snapshot of lessons captured in the brief. These lessons are vital to informing advocacy in child nutrition policy and upcoming stimulus opportunities. For opportunities to put this information into action, learn more about NFSN policy priorities for Child Nutrition Reauthorization here and read about opportunities to leverage stimulus funding, here: Creative Opportunities for Strengthening Farm to ECE through Emerging Federal Funding Streams.

Read the full brief to learn more about these themes of innovation that emerged during COVID-19 and the policy and practice recommendations we can garner from the experience to build more equitable and more resilient ECE and food systems into the future.

This blog was originally posted on July 23, 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: 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.

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: 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 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.

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. 


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. 


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.