Childcare: Fertile ground for healthy young eaters

Posted February 7, 2013 by JoAnne Berkenkamp   Erin McKee VanSlooten   

Local FoodFood and HealthFarm to ChildcareEducation

When a four year old in our project was asked recently where carrots come from, he pretty well nailed it: “The ground, and farmers water them and pick them and give them to people and bunnies too, and stores.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. 

So amidst all the gloom and doom about childhood obesity, there is reason for hope. One bright light on the path to healthier kids is Farm to Childcare (F2CC). By connecting kids with local farm fresh foods, F2CC initiatives support farmers who produce healthy choices like fruits and vegetables while helping our youngest eaters get off to a good start.

IATP launched our new Farm to Child Care pilot in Minnesota last summer. With our child care partner, New Horizon Academy, we designed a set of practical, on-the-ground strategies to try out new approaches in child care settings: menu innovations featuring local foods, age-appropriate curriculum, parent outreach and a rigorous evaluation program. Now we’re pleased to share some of what we did and what we’re learning. Here’s the scoop:

  • The pilot was conducted at 14 child care centers from June through November 2012 with 1350 kids aged two to six participating. 
  • The pilot focused on 11 foods that are grown widely in the Upper Midwest, including zucchini, peppers, pea pods, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, apples, cabbage, carrots, winter squash and wild rice. Half a dozen Minnesota farmers provided these foods.
  • We designed strategies for teaching young children about local foods and farming that ranged from math and science to art and sensory play.
  • F2CC curriculum specific to a given local food was highlighted in the classroom on Mondays and Tuesdays, and then that food was featured in a snack on Wednesdays and in the lunch menu on Thursdays. This approach worked well as it familiarized kids with the foods first, created a buzz and then gave them a chance to eat the foods as part of their normal meals.
  • We focused on simple menu preparations like green pepper strips or tomatoes with hummus and zucchini muffins. This made the food visible to the children and helped keep the food prep straightforward for the child care centers.
  • Display boards featuring the foods and farmers, e-newsletters and taste-testing sessions helped connect parents with the Farm to Child Care initiative, along with recipes, song lyrics and book ideas that connect families with local food concepts at home. 

By the end of the pilot, we found that:

  • 84 percent of participating children could correctly identify these foods
  • 72 percent reported liking the local foods that were featured
  • Younger children (e.g., ages 3–4) were often more receptive to new foods than older kids
  • Teachers play a crucial role in modeling openness to new foods

Through a survey of parents, we learned that:

  • 42 percent of responding parents said their child had talked with them at home about the F2CC foods or activities
  • 48 percent have done something different at home as a result of the program such as eating more fruits and vegetables or buying local foods at a farmers market
  • 91 percent of parents said they would like to see the F2CC program continue

So we have made some initial inroads in building bridges among very young children, child care providers and local foods. What is next? 

First, IATP will have the opportunity to share this work on a national stage at the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit, part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, in Washington, D.C. in a few weeks. Then, our Farm to Child Care initiative will be rolled out in 2013 to all 60 New Horizon Academy child care centers in Minnesota. Lastly, IATP will use what we’ve learned to improve our F2CC model and then share all of our F2CC resources later in 2013 with early childhood advocates, child care providers, farmers and policymakers around the U.S.

We hope that these efforts will enable others to learn from our mistakes and our successes, and help stakeholders around the country get more of those carrots to our littlest eaters (and to bunnies, too).




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