This fall, in the far northeast corner of Oregon, preschoolers will be heading on field trips to gardens and farms, digging in edible gardens, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables that they will grow, harvest, and cook.
“It’s instinctive for children to experiment with eating, to enjoy the act of foraging in the garden,” says Sara Miller, the Economic Development Specialist with the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District. “There’s the joy of different textures; the freedom and adventure of it. I picked it. I washed it. I ate it… It goes through the children to the rest of the family.”
Miller helped secure a small grant from Ecotrust for five Wallowa County child-care centers — two Head Start programs serving children from families living below the poverty line, two private home-based preschools, and a home-based Montessori school — to work together on what is known as farm to preschool: a growing movement that connects young children (ages 0 to 6) with local foods. Activities under the farm to preschool banner range from sourcing food from local farms and planting gardens, to taste tests, farmer visits, and field trips to farmers markets, farms, and community gardens.
The Wallowa County program is one of thirteen programs around the state that received grants from Ecotrust ranging from $500 to $2,000 to support new and expanding farm to preschool projects. Ecotrust prioritized providing grants to programs serving some of the most vulnerable children and families in Oregon. Recipients include child-care centers, relief nurseries and emergency shelters, and family child-care sites.
These grants are the next stage in an evolving movement to establish farm to preschool as the new normal for child care across the country, regardless of family income. About five years ago, farm to school practitioners started noticing a growing body of evidence that showed that people form their longest-lasting habits and attitudes toward food before they enter kindergarten. What’s more, approximately one in five U.S. children are overweight or obese by their sixth birthday. Since many preschoolers consume the majority of their daily nutrients in child care, farm to preschool presented a strategic way to address this multitude of concerns.
What if child-care centers focused on providing healthy, local food, and gave kids more opportunities to learn to love fruits and vegetables in the garden and kitchen? Could the farm to preschool approach, which weaves education and local community participation into its fabric, be a holistic way to both turn the tide on obesity, as well as positively shift American habits and attitudes toward whole foods?
Could the farm to preschool approach … be a holistic way to turn the tide on obesity?
That question was one of the sparks that inspired the farm to school team at Ecotrust to join the first wave of farm to school programs targeting early care and education settings for the promotion of healthy eating. In 2008, we collaboratively piloted one of the first farm to preschool programs in the nation, and in 2012, we helped coordinate a farm to preschool coalition in order to build necessary support at the state level from state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and other key partners.
The grant program we launched this year addresses two requests that Ecotrust has heard from programs on the ground:
1) Seed funding to support innovative local food procurement, and farm to preschool in general.
These mini-grants help child-care programs experiment with building relationships with small-scale producers, subscribing to community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs) to receive a weekly box of farm-fresh produce, expanding their on-site gardens, and other creative ways to source local food. Early child-care settings often have more flexibility with their food purchasing than do public schools and also more time built into the day for experiential education. State and federal funding is available for K-12 school districts that are interested in farm to school, but equivalent funding does not yet exist specifically for farm to preschool programs.
2) Opportunities to collaborate and learn from one another.
One requirement of all mini-grant recipients is their participation in a peer-to-peer learning community over the next six months. The learning community is intended to establish a supportive network, as well as build leadership capacity among diverse and widespread child-care centers who are at the forefront of the farm to preschool movement.
“The networking component is one of the hardest to get funded, but those are the dollars I appreciate the most,” says Miller in Wallowa. “They’re worth their weight in gold. The ability to quickly make decisions, to overcome challenges — you have to invest in relationships to be efficient that way. That takes time.”
“These child-care centers are raising a new generation of children who are going to have a connection to their food system that was starting to be lost,” adds Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust Farm to School Manager, who also leads the national farm to preschool initiative on behalf of the National Farm to School Network. “Now they will be making different choices as they become young adults — choices that will impact not just their own personal health, but also the health of their families and entire communities.” By working in the child-care setting, where kids are learning social skills and norms, Sobell believes that the hard work that many people are undertaking to create a more equitable and environmentally sound food system has a much greater chance to take hold and become part of our social fabric. “We are planting seeds for twenty years down the road.”
What do these programs provide for their communities? “A sense of community pride; opportunities to celebrate; collaboration; resources beyond what we have in our community; giving people who care opportunities to give back,” says Miller.
“I’m excited about the mini-grant program because it’s going to help extend learning about gardening, farms, and nutrition not just to the children that I work with, but to the families that I work with,” adds Julie Hutt, a mini-grant recipient from A Child’s Place in Salem, who has worked with children for over twenty-eight years.
“My hope is they’ll share that with other families, their neighbors, and the broader community,” says Hutt. That’s the hope that’s taking root from preschool to preschool across the state.
Learn about the mini-grant recipients, and stay tuned for stories of their programs as the year unfolds:
A Child’s Place
Family child care, in operation for 27 years, serving 10 children, ages 1 1/2 to 8 in Marion County.
Mini-grant activities: Organize farm field trips to U-pick farms to harvest berries, peaches, and apples; purchase additional fall produce from local farms to cook with kids, preserve, and share with families.
Child-care center serving 20 Latino children, ages 1 to 4, in Washington County.
Mini-grant activities: Expand low-income Latino families’ access to fresh produce from the Forest Grove Farmers’ Market; offer classes for preschoolers and mothers on nutrition, cooking, and gardening; and partner with the Forest Grove Community School on edible gardening activities and farm field trips.
Head Start of Lane County/Willamette Farm & Food Coalition
Center-based child care serving 1,026 children, ages 3 to 5, at 17 sites in Lane County.
Mini-grant activities: Engage with Head Start families at two county-wide events, sampling fresh fruits and vegetables; offering produce to take home, farmers’ market vouchers, and information on SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets; organizing a field trip to the farmers’ market with families.
Old Mill Center for Children & Families/Corvallis Environmental Center
Relief Nursery and Intensive Treatment Services, serving 36 to 46 children, ages 6 months to 7 years old, and their families, in Benton County.
Mini-grant activities: Pilot a project with Corvallis Environmental Center (CEC) to develop a comprehensive program that can act as a model for other Corvallis-area preschools, engaging children in gardening, cooking, and nutrition activities, and sharing harvests with families. CEC currently operates a farm to school program for students in the Corvallis School District; this project will prepare children for a seamless integration from farm to preschool into farm to school activities when they enter kindergarten.
Oregon Child Development Coalition, Anderson
Center-based child care, including programs for children of migrant families and Native American children, serving 164 children ages 6 weeks to 6 years, in Multnomah County.
Mini-grant activities: Launch a new garden featuring Northwest native plants and berries, where Native families can also learn organic vegetable gardening and children can plant, harvest, and take what are called “First Foods” by the Native community into the kitchen to cook and eat.
Family Relief Nursery
Abuse prevention preschool program serving 68 children, ages 6 months to 5 years, in Multnomah County.
Mini-grant activities: Expand year-round production to enhance the vibrant on-site Seed-to-Table garden the center has developed, which offers fresh produce for families and nature-based activities with therapeutic horticulture for preschoolers.
Schneider Children’s Center, Southern Oregon University
Center-based child care serving 52 children, ages 6 weeks to 6 years, in Jackson County, in connection with Southern Oregon University.
Mini-grant activities: Coordinate weekly walking field trips to the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market for preschoolers to meet farmers and purchase local fruits and vegetables that will be featured in meals and included in cooking activities, taste tests, and food preservation.
Family child care serving 16 children, ages 1 to 6, in Marion County.
Mini-grant activities: Purchase a CSA share; incorporate more local foods into snacks, meals, and food preservation activities for children and families.
South Coast Head Start
Center-based child care serving 417 children, ages 3 and 4, at multiple locations in Coos and Curry Counties.
Mini-grant activities: Connect children and families with local producers through field trips to farms and fishing boats and purchasing local food directly from farmers and fishers to be used in taste tests, cooking activities, and incorporated into meals and snacks.
Wallowa County Head Start/Northeast Oregon Economic Development District
Various child care types serving 87 children, ages 3 to 5, in Wallowa County.
Mini-grant activities: Taking a collaborative approach, five child care sites will offer their preschoolers immersive, activity-filled field trips to food gardens, materials for expanding on-site gardens, and edible education.
West Women’s and Children’s Shelter
Emergency shelter and transitional housing for survivors of domestic violence and their children, serving 35 children in on-site child care, in Multnomah County.
Mini-grant activities: Provide opportunities for families with young children to explore fresh local food together through field trips to the farmers’ market and farm tours, while increasing local produce served in on-site snacks and meals.
Family child care serving 22 children, ages 10 months to 6 years, in Curry County.
Mini-grant activities: Purchase a CSA from nearby Big Lick Farm and organize a field trip; invite a local farmer to visit the preschool; expand the on-site garden to use fruits and vegetables in meals and to send home with families.
YMCA of Klamath Falls
Center-based child care serving 45 children, ages 2 1/2 to 5, in Klamath County.
Mini-grant activities: Purchase a CSA and local eggs for use in center meals and educational activities; organize two farm field trips — one to a fruit and vegetable grower, the other to a chicken farm; and host a family day at the local farmers’ market.