Farm to Childcare: Highlights and Lessons Learned

By Erin McKee VanSlooten   JoAnne Berkenkamp, Madeline Kastler and Lynn Mader
Published July 15, 2014

Local FoodAgricultureFarm to ChildcareEducationFood

Introduction: About our Experience with Farm to Childcare

In late 2011, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) began exploring a potential collaboration with New Horizon Academy (NHA), a for-profit childcare provider, to jointly design and conduct a pilot Farm to Childcare (F2CC) program in Minnesota. Together, we developed and launched a Farm to Childcare pilot program in 14 NHA childcare centers in June 2012 and then expanded the program to all 62 NHA centers in Minnesota in June 2013.

Through this publication, we are sharing the story of that collaboration—including both the ups and downs, the successes and missteps as we learned along the way—with the hope that our experiences might provide some helpful insight and tools for other organizations wishing to start or expand their own Farm to Childcare initiatives. Our experience is beholden to the particular context in which IATP and NHA are working and the particular strategies that we used, but we hope that sharing it will help others when they consider how they might strengthen their own efforts in whatever contexts they call home.

Inside, you will find a description of our experience developing partnerships, the timetable for our program, our approach for designing the pilot Farm to Childcare program, and the tools we developed, including our curriculum and teaching materials, the locally grown foods used in our pilot, sample menus, parent outreach strategies and more. Throughout this material, we share “what we did” and then “what we learned.” We also conducted an extensive evaluation of the pilot, and we share our tools and lessons from that experience.

Overview and highlights of our approach

What is Farm to Childcare?

Farm to Childcare initiatives connect very young children with local food and farms, providing fresh, healthy foods in childcare meals while teaching children where that food comes from. Farm to Childcare programs, sometimes referred to as Farm to Preschool programs, can also build markets for local farmers, boost the local economy by keeping more childcare providers’ “food dollars” circulating close to home and support more environmentally and socially sustainable farming.

Given growing nutrition challenges among America’s youth, engaging children in healthy eating early in life is essential. Incorporating local foods and related curriculum into childcare programming is a golden opportunity to support the development of healthy eating habits while engaging children and their parents in learning opportunities that are fun, informative and experiential.

Increasing implementation of Farm to Childcare programs to reach children early in life, particularly between the ages of 3 and 5 when their taste preferences are at their most formative and as they are building an understanding of where food comes from, will help ensure that the next generation makes better food choices for their health, their community and the environment. For more information on the benefits of Farm to Childcare and further resources to get started, check out the Farm to Pre-K website at http://www.farmtoprek.org.

How was the IATP Farm to Childcare pilot structured?

IATP worked together with New Horizon Academy (NHA) to design a set of practical, on-the-ground strategies for incorporating locally grown foods and related curriculum and parent outreach strategies into NHA childcare settings. The Farm to Childcare pilot was conducted at 14 NHA childcare centers from June through November 2012, with 1,350 participating children aged 2 to 6.

Our underlying goal was to engage in as much experimentation as we could in a relatively brief period of time and to learn as much as we could from that process. For instance, we sped up what might otherwise have been a “Harvest of the Month” approach and featured a new Farm to Childcare food every two weeks during Minnesota’s relatively brief season for fresh produce. We chose 11 foods that are grown widely in the Upper Midwest: zucchini, peppers, pea pods, tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupe, apples, cabbage, carrots and winter squash.

NHA had an exclusive purchasing agreement with a prime distribution company, limiting our purchasing options to the products and local farms that work with the distributor. Half a dozen Minnesota farmers provided the piloted foods.

The program focused on simple menu preparations like green pepper strips or tomatoes with hummus and zucchini muffins. Our goal in choosing these types of preparations was to make the food visible to the children and to help keep the food prep straightforward for cooking staff. In addition to eating the foods, children also participated in classroom activities that highlighted the featured foods (with a series of lessons about farming, weather and other themes added in early 2013 before the program was rolled out to all NHA centers in Minnesota). Activities designed to teach young children about local foods and farming ranged from math and science to art and sensory play.

Farm to Childcare curriculum activities specific to a given local food were 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. By the end of a two-week period, children had had at least eight exposures to that period’s featured food.

How did the program engage with children’s families?

Display boards featuring the foods and farmers, e-newsletters and taste-testing sessions kept parents engaged with the Farm to Childcare initiative, along with recipes, song lyrics and book ideas that families could use to connect with local food concepts at home.

We had a very successful partnership with University of Minnesota-Extension’s Simply Good Eating program, which is set up to provide nutrition education to low-income communities. The centers in our pilot program that had 50 percent or more of their children on childcare assistance were eligible for an on-site taste-test recipe demonstration for parents from a trained Simply Good Eating community educator. We coordinated with Simply Good Eating to have the taste test feature the food that was being highlighted in our Farm to Childcare program at the time of the site visit, and we provided family-size recipes for parents to try at home.

IATP also partnered with Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s MN Grown program to develop a version of their annual local food and farming guide that included information on Farm to Childcare and suggestions for activities parents can do with their children to promote local foods. The Farm to Childcare MN Grown Directory was released in the spring of 2013. We distributed 10,000 copies of the directory to our network of childcare partners, accompanied by an explanatory letter encouraging them to explore Farm to Childcare and to support local producers. MN Grown has produced an additional 190,000 copies of this special directory to distribute. Additionally, we worked with MN Grown to create a series of four posters designed with the childcare setting in mind, highlighting four Minnesota farmers and the vegetables they grow. Our partnerships with Simply Good Eating and MN Grown will be further explained in the Parent Outreach section to follow.

Initial results of pilot

Throughout the pilot, we attempted to track the degree to which children could identify the highlighted foods and whether or not they liked them. While our evaluation process had its challenges (which we illuminate in the Evaluation section below), by the end of the pilot, we found that:

  • 84 percent of participating children could correctly identify foods featured in the program
  • 72 percent reported liking the local foods that were featured
  • Younger children (i.e., ages 3–4) were often more receptive to new foods than older kids

Through a survey of parents, we also 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

Collaborating with a partner organization

At the beginning of our partnership, IATP and NHA crafted a Memorandum of Understanding to set the groundwork for clear expectations about responsibilities during the program and to clarify that IATP would share the resources and insights that were developed through our collaboration.

When working as partner organizations to run a program as we did, it’s important to be very clear about expectations and the division of labor from the beginning of the program, and to keep in regular communication throughout the planning process. We found that communication was easier when we had face–to-face meetings, frequent email contact and scheduled planning meetings, as well as mid-pilot check in meetings to be sure everyone on the planning committee was on the same page.

From the start of this project, we organized three task forces made up of teachers, kitchen staff and center directors, IATP staff and NHA leadership. The task forces focused on the development of the curriculum, food-related issues and parent engagement. In keeping with NHA’s organizational culture, participants were identified by NHA leadership and asked to participate. The task forces were helpful in providing a place for staff to share input and for them to be a part of shaping the initiative at the start. They also reviewed and improved upon the curriculum, gave helpful input about how best to incorporate new foods into recipes and menus, and flagged the desire for additional types of training. However, we found that their participation was hindered by their limited availability to meet during the day, given their work responsibilities, and complications with trying to meet at other times or venues. A longer “run-up” period during the pilot’s development would have positioned us to leverage the wisdom of task force members more fully.

The initial planning for the pilot was the most time intensive period for the program, and it can be difficult for staff who already have other commitments to devote time to this project. To that end, we worked to find ways to lessen the burden for NHA staff by being available to participate in coordinating with the food distributor. We learned that we could address questions or challenges most efficiently by including both IATP and NHA representatives in meetings and conference calls with the food distributor. Initially, there were some delays in decision-making due to IATP having questions about a certain food item’s specs that needed to go through NHA to ask the distributor, or when NHA had concerns about food safety that they wanted to ask IATP while in a meeting with the distributor.

We were lucky that NHA has a very streamlined and efficient staff and process, so we were able to get things done on a very short timeline. Ideally, we would have liked more time to follow up on issues as they came up. If we had had more time, it might have allowed for a design process that involved deeper collaboration with more staff, perhaps through making greater use of staff task forces we formed in our initial planning process. The shorter timeline meant that our program focused on experimentation rather than a slower process that may have had a greater impact on kids’ knowledge. For this complicated planning process, it is best to allow plenty of time to revise and double-check things as you go.

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