Holly Chute has a message that may surprise a lot of pre-school children across America: potatoes don’t look like French fries.
“It’s amazing how many kids don’t know what a potato looks like,” Chute told a breakout session on Cooking With Kids at the 2013 Georgia Farm to Preschool Summit in September in Atlanta. The summit was the first of many farm to preschool activities that are flourishing across the country with the support of the National Farm to School Network’s Farm to Preschool Subcommittee.
The Farm to Preschool Subcommittee was formed in the spring of 2011 as a natural expansion of the National Farm to School Network. The subcommittee, which consist of 26 members representing national leaders in early child care and education and the farm to school movement, works to support early learning centers that are purchasing local meals for snacks, adopting nutrition and/or garden-based education curricula and teaching children about where food comes from and how it is grown. The vision for the network is to have similar momentum among preschools as there has been among farm to school programs, which are active in all 50 states. As an indication of the farm to school movement’s success, Congress has designated October as Farm to School Month.
One of the goals of the farm to preschool movement is to stop obesity and obesity-related diseases early. Proponents are seeking to do that by influencing the eating habits of young children while their preferences are forming. The way to that, the subcommittee believes, is by creating healthy lifestyles through good nutrition and hands-on learning activities such as gardening and improving access to healthy food. Ultimately, one hope is to convince policy makers to address the childhood obesity epidemic through the lens of locally grown food.
“Once kids get into elementary school, it can be too late,” said Chute (pictured right), who has served six governors as the chef at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion.
Children form lifelong lifestyle habits and taste preferences early, said Diane Harris, health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and team lead for the nutrition branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.
“The earlier the better in helping kids to form habits that will prevent obesity and obesity-related diseases,” added Harris, who is a member of the Farm to Preschool Subcommittee. “Farm to Preschool gets to kids at an early age so that by the time they get to elementary school, they are already on board with Farm to School.”
That’s important because the evidence shows that when kids try new foods, they need eight to 10 exposures to accept the food, pointed out Stacey Sobell, farm to school manager at Ecotrust in Portland, Ore., and co-lead for the National Farm to School Network’s Farm to Preschool Subcommittee. “Introducing kids to healthy eating choices in preschool makes it more likely they will accept and choose healthy food at a later age.”
Farm to preschool includes children from infants until their first year of school who attend any of the nation’s full spectrum of child care: preschools, Head Start, child care, early care programs in K-12 school districts, and family home-care facilities. The program connects these children to local foods through meals and snacks, lessons in food preparation and taste tests, farmer visits, field trips to farmers markets and community gardens, growing food in school gardens that involve activities in the areas of science, math, art, and literacy, or community and parent engagement.
“In just two short years, the F2P movement has grown exponentially, generating hundreds of programs across the country, gaining national recognition as a strategy to combat obesity from the CDC and from first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care initiative, and spawning events like Farm to School Month’s Celebrate Farm to Preschool Day,” said Sobell. “The next steps are to strengthen the movement at local, state, and national levels, standardize the evaluation of programs, and to continue to develop strategies and resources that make it easy and accessible for on-the-ground practitioners to procure and serve healthy local foods and teach young children about where their food comes from.”
The Farm to Preschool Subcommittee, which functions as a forum for targeting and sharing best practices, and the National Farm to School Network assessed the movement’s impacts through a survey begun in June 2012. The goal of the survey was to determine the types of activities that are being held, challenges and opportunities of early child care centers that are implementing farm to preschool and the type of support that is needed to operate and sustain the program.
From across the country, 494 early child care and education program managers, directors, administrators, food service coordinators, and partner organizations serving at least 163,450 young children responded to the survey.
The respondents included child care centers (42 percent), Head Start/ Early Start centers (20 percent), and private preschools (17 percent), with more than half saying they were in rural locations, including tribal reservations. Almost half have been active in farm to preschool for three or more years.
The most common activities among survey respondents are:
Teaching children about where food comes from and how it is grown (87 percent).
Serving meals or snacks with at least some local food (79 percent).
Planting or working with children in edible gardens.
As a sign of the growing recognition and support for farm to preschool programs, the first statewide coalition to work on farm to preschool was established in Oregon in 2012. North Carolina also has widespread support for farm to preschool, and the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project will have a farm to preschool track at its farm to school conference in November.
If you are interested in starting a farm to preschool program in your community, Sobell says there’s really not one specific set of guidelines that advocates must adhere to. That’s because farm to preschool, as a part of the National Farm to School Network, is a grassroots movement that does not impose a rigid list of practices. Rather, individual programs are shaped by the uniqueness of their regions.
Sobell suggests parents and others visit the Farm to Preschool website and sign up there for the Taking Root monthly e-newsletter, which can be accessed by a link at the bottom.
If you're eager to incorporate some simple ideas into your daily routine at home, try these recipes from Chef Chute:
2 apples, peeled cored and diced
1/4 cup vanilla Greek yogurt *
1/2 cup craisins or raisins
1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted
2 ribs of celery, diced
* Chute uses Greek yogurt because she says it is thicker than other yogurt and has twice the protein.
Combine all ingredients in a bowl. refrigerate until ready to serve.
2 peaches peeled and sliced
1 cup vanilla Greek yogurt *
1 cup 1 percent milk
Combine all ingredients in a blender. Optional: add a few ice cubes. Blend until smooth.
Related files on MNN:
- 10 of the most impressive farm to school programs
- How to establish a Farm to School program
- 6 ways to boost a child's immune system
Photo of kids in garden: Oregon Child Development Coalition