“Helping children and families understand where food comes from, how it grows and why it is good for our bodies” is what motivates Isel Otero-Vera in her day-to-day work to expand farm to early care and education across Pennsylvania. Her deep connection to her grandfather’s farm in Puerto Rico shaped her convictions that healthy food “should be at the center of and celebrated in our society.”
Isel is a senior associate at The Food Trust, a nonprofit based in Philadelphia working with communities across the country to improve access to affordable, nutritious food through farm to early care and education programming, among other initiatives.
Through the Ready Set Grow initiative, The Food Trust collaborates with the Pennsylvania Head Start Association and a number of other partners across the commonwealth to bring experiential education, school gardens and the procurement of local foods into early care and education settings. These three ingredients make up what is known as farm to early care and education.
Nurturing children’s palates and well-being
“I remember as a child someone told me about My Plate and that you should have five fruits and veggies a day, and that blew my mind,” shares Nekia Rosado, project manager at The Food Trust and a SNAP-Ed educator. A self-described “traveling nutritionist,” Nekia works with Pennsylvania Ready Set Grow partners to spread farm to early care and education programs throughout the state.
Champions like Nekia and Christina Mccoy, an urban farmer from West Philadelphia, provide technical assistance and training to early care and education providers, such as Smart Beginnings Early Learning Center in West Philadelphia. They also serve as mentors and neighborhood advocates who facilitate connections among providers, local farmers and other community partners.
As a result, more and more Pennsylvania child care sites are introducing children to healthy, local foods through farm to early care and education – nurturing their palates and setting the stage for them to try new dishes at home. Even a small change at a child care center can make a huge difference in access to and acceptance of healthier foods.
A framework for racial equity
Racial equity is front and center of Pennsylvania’s farm to early care and education efforts. Ready Set Grow partners are continually asking themselves, “How can we center those who are most impacted by racial inequities and inequities in the food and early care systems? How can we shift our programming in a way that centers those folks?”
Through an intentional and collaborative process, The Food Trust worked with initiative partners to create a racial equity framework to guide their work. The framework helps them hold a mirror up and examine their organizational practices internally, as well as their engagement and advocacy efforts externally. Their aim is to normalize racial equity in program and policy design and build capacity to support systemic change.
A key outcome of this work has been the creation of regional learning collaboratives. “We conducted a landscape assessment to identify challenges and opportunities and realized we were missing key people – the community organizers, early care and education directors, local farmers and general practitioners,” says Isel. “We decided to shift the model to support regional, place-based work in communities, while Pennsylvania Head Start Association continued to engage statewide champions through the Ready Set Grow task force.”
Regional learning collaboratives network grassroots leaders – local providers, farmers and families – and engage them in shaping farm to early care and education programs. By focusing on racial equity, the collaboratives lift up critical voices in policy advocacy and create enduring solutions.
“These collaboratives are enhancing relationship building, knowledge sharing and capacity building so we can build farm to early care and education at a local level and advocate for it at a state level,” Isel says.
Most rewarding are the connections and relationships being made. For example, through a regional learning collaborative in West Philadelphia, Isel shares, “Three groups in the same neighborhood were able to come together that previously hadn’t known each other.”
The Food Trust supported a summer community-supported agriculture (CSA) pilot project that connected the Smart Beginnings Early Learning Center, a SNAP-Ed educator in the neighborhood, and Urban Tree Connection, a nonprofit working to build an equitable, sustainable, local food system. “We came back the following summer and they were continuing the program on their own,” says Isel. “Parents and neighbors were picking up bags of greens at the center supplied by the urban farm.”
Urban Tree Connection became involved because they “wanted to serve as a local food source and reach families in a more targeted way with the vegetables we are growing,” says Noelle Warford, executive director. “It is inspiring to see people who are preparing the meals at early care and education centers with intention, understanding how much that affects children’s development.”
Farm to early care and education initiatives can also help build resilient communities that are prepared to respond to food sourcing challenges. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of their Free Food Share Project, Urban Tree Connection provided emergency food boxes to the neighborhood, including families who had children at Smart Beginnings to ensure they had nutritious meals at home even when they weren’t able to attend child care.
“As the pandemic went on, neighborhood block captains shared how residents were losing their jobs and community members were scared to leave their homes because they were sick or knew someone who was sick. There was an exacerbated number of cases in our predominantly Black community,” says Noelle. “So we offered no-contact delivery to block captains, CSA-style shared boxes customized based on what the need was on their block.”
Reconnecting to the land and cultures
The Ready Set Grow initiative and regional learning collaboratives have played an important role in linking child care sites with local farmers, farmers’ markets and food hubs, particularly with food producers of color. In addition to eating farm-fresh nutritious foods, children take field trips to sites, like Urban Tree Connection and Mill Creek Urban Farms, where they meet farmers who look like them. Even educators and parents benefit from seeing new career possibilities in sustainable agriculture.
“The history of land and how it was stolen and how labor has been exploited really does tarnish how people see nature and farming,” shares Isel. “Working with kids is an opportunity to shift that mentality and use their curiosity to view a farm with fresh eyes.”
The initiative has curated an extensive collection of multicultural children’s books on farming, gardening, cooking and eating family meals that feature a diversity of racial and ethnic identities for child care centers to use in their classrooms. And, the Pennsylvania Head Start Association partnered with Aetna Better Health of Pennsylvania to produce a cookbook of recipes, “Receta de Familia,” to engage Latinx families in cooking alongside their children.
The hands-on experience of planting seeds and growing gardens also connects kids to food production. “It’s been very educational for the children; because they have a vested interest in the garden, they are willing to try what they planted,” says Cheryl Moss, owner and director of A Mother’s Touch Center for Child Development in Sharon, Pennsylvania. “When we first started, we planted whatever we could, but after learning what vegetables kids like we plant those: sugar peas, green beans, tomatoes. Even the picky eaters would eat what we planted if they picked it from the vine.”
For long-term sustainability, the work of the Ready Set Grow initiative will continue through the Pennsylvania Farm to School Network, a statewide collaborative working to connect growers, schools, early care and education sites, and community members around food; Keystone Kids Go!, a statewide collaborative invested in improving the health and wellness of Pennsylvania’s young children; and the regional learning collaboratives coordinated through The Food Trust. “Moving forward, we hope that these joint efforts will create space for different levels of engagement and allow for place-based, community building opportunities that inform and influence policy advocacy on larger statewide networks,” Isel says.
While Pennsylvania was the first in the nation to adopt its own state farm bill that includes funding for farm to early care and education, there is still a need to reach more communities with farm to early care and education programs.
Thanks to the initiative and partners’ efforts, Pennsylvania’s quality rating and improvement system for early care and education, Keystone STARS, now includes guidance for farm to early care and education and awards bonus points to providers for integrating it. For successful implementation, training and technical assistance will be critical. Funding is also needed to sustain local food purchasing incentives, as well as provide mini-grants that can jumpstart farm to early care and education activities, like edible gardens and farmers’ market outings, or provide professional development.
Most critically, Pennsylvania’s small farmers and early childhood education providers must receive fair, livable wages for their work to provide healthy foods and educational opportunities for young children. Public and private dollars can help ensure that essential workers are valued and families have access to high-quality and affordable child care.
“We’ve been working for many years organizing folks in agriculture, health and education,” says Isel. “A result of our collective work is that more people are primed to really understand the importance of farm to early care and education to local economies and to health outcomes.” As farm to early care and education continues to spread across the state, more and more children will gladly be eating five fruits and vegetables a day.
To create farm to early care and education programs that are racially equitable, it is critical to engage providers, farmers and community leaders of color directly in their design and implementation. “We perpetuate systemic racism by imposing solutions that are not grounded in the particular conditions of a community, and that fail to organize the people most impacted,” says Noelle. “Our projects should always position Black and Brown communities to have more control over their lives and well-being.”
Through regional learning collaboratives, Isel says, “We’re shifting the paradigm of who’s the leader, who’s a professional, who knows a lot, who can connect and who can really give food or funding.” By using a model that connects and engages people on the ground, communities can be genuinely empowered to create meaningful, effective programs. “We start groups by asking people what they want to give and what they want to get,” says Isel. “They build trust and ideas together for how they want to continue to collaborate and develop farm to early care and education programs and activities.”
“If funders and government agencies want to be true allies, they need to advocate for and support fair wages to farmers and early care providers,” Isel says. Farming, especially by independent farmers, is an incredibly low profit margin business for something so essential to life. And, while most claim the care and education of our children is a high priority, early care and education providers are still paid below living wages. The resulting staff turnover can lead to instability of centers and children having to develop new relationships and trust with their caregivers on a regular basis. Investing in the health and stability of our children is an investment in the future.
Pennsylvania’s own farm bill has established a mechanism for state funding. This will help create some stability to expand the network of farm to early care and education programs across the commonwealth. SNAP-Ed and CACFP are other state and federal funding sources that can also be leveraged to support farm to early care and education efforts. Still, additional resources will be necessary to ensure children and their families, early care and education providers, farmers and communities benefit from the program.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is culminating a five-year, five-state pilot for farm to early care and education. This story was made possible by interviews with The Food Trust to learn how they are helping advance farm to early care and education programs that support healthy children and equitable, sustainable food systems in Pennsylvania.
Explore More About Farm to Early Care and Education
Across the country, providers, local farmers, community organizations, state agencies and other partners are coming together to develop successful farm to early care and education programs.