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Accelerating farm to preschool

Our vision is that, with resources and support, child care providers will connect more children and families with healthy, local foods.

Big changes in our food system can start in little bellies. That’s the first working theory behind Ecotrust’s new farm to preschool project, launching this week. The second is that collaboration among child care providers will help small changes domino into wholesale transformation.

We are excited to announce this week the creation of a Farm to Preschool Learning Community, through which early child care and education (ECE) providers and partners in Oregon will receive mini-grants for farm to preschool projects, as well as technical assistance, peer-to-peer networking, and access to resources via Ecotrust. The Request for Applications is open to all Oregon ECE providers and to their community partners, and we hope to get applications from across the state.

This Learning Community is the outgrowth of Ecotrust’s cultivation of farm to preschool programming in Oregon over the past six years. In 2008, Ecotrust was one of the first organizations in the country to pilot a farm to preschool program at three Head Start sites, in partnership with the Oregon Child Development Coalition. Following that successful program, Ecotrust pulled together an Oregon Farm to Preschool Coalition, which shepherded the movement by creating resources and leading trainings for providers around the state (our newly published toolkit details the approach that Ecotrust took to building farm to preschool efforts at a statewide level). For the past three years, we have also led the national farm to preschool initiative on behalf of the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), which has acted as a lead convener and facilitator, advancing the farm to preschool movement across the country.

Networks and partnerships are at the heart of our approach to changing the school food landscape, where so many diverse actors play a role. We champion this approach because we have experienced its power to create lasting change, in the form of healthy kids, healthy farms, and local jobs. Oregon’s farm to school movement at the K-12 level is strong; this Learning Community is the next step in a continuum of robust farm to school programs, from preschool through college.

Our vision for the Learning Community is that, with resources and support, ECE providers will be empowered to connect more children and families with healthy, local foods, explore innovative food procurement practices — especially in rural regions of the state — and increase the number of relationships between beginning farmers, food producers, and early child care and education programs. We see the farm to preschool movement as an important catalyst for food systems change writ large; while preschool sites vary greatly in size and purchasing power, a strong farm to preschool program creates an expectation among parents and communities that carries through into school-age years, when the power of large institutional buyers can truly drive system-wide change.

While getting from here to there can seem like a daunting task, we find inspiration in small moments. On a farm to preschool field trip out to Sauvie Island Center last fall, we were excited by the vigorous head-nods of a four-year-old girl who was asked if she would like some more kale. We were impressed by the number of parents who showed up for this field trip during the work week to learn along with their children. And we were surprised that for some of these parents, it was their first time trying raw fruits and vegetables, like sweet peppers. We are confident that, if we support experiences like this one, all across the state, we will move in the direction we want to go.

Encourage your local preschool to join us! Ecotrust’s Farm to Preschool Learning Community application, as well as grant instructions and guidelines are available here.