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Food SystemsHealth

Farm to early care and education advances community nutrition in Georgia

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“I don’t like bugs myself, but I love finding bugs [in the garden] with the kids,” says Ashley Strickland, early childhood program administrator at Little Ones Learning Center. “I love going on a treasure hunt with them in the dirt and seeing what we can find, using all of our senses.”

Little Ones Learning Center, a Black- and family-owned child care center in metro Atlanta, introduced farm to early care and education programs almost 10 years ago when they turned an unused swimming pool into 12 garden beds.

Both a program and a movement, farm to early care and education connects young children to local food and healthy eating through growing, eating and learning in early care and education settings.

“The way I describe it is three parts: gardening with the children, providing more fresh fruits and vegetables in our meals and snacks, and teaching children where their food comes from,” says Stacie McQuagge, curriculum coordinator at Little Ones Learning Center.

Young eaters and their garden educator enjoy the delicious scents of fresh mint and rosemary. Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, GA.

The center has seen farm to early care and education transform kids’ relationship to eating – and also their energy and spirit in the classroom. Through the center’s gardens, kids are able to tap into the beauty and healing powers of nature.

At the start of the project, “Kids didn’t know that the fruits and vegetables they see at the grocery store were grown somewhere, they thought they just appeared at the grocery store,” Stacie says. “So, it really is all about education … they’re digging in the garden and planting, weeding, watering, harvesting and then eating.”

Benefits of introducing healthy food to children early

Having access to nutrient-rich food early can change a child's life.

95

of brain growth happens before kindergarten.

Research shows early nutrition is critical to normal brain development.

Farm to early care and education supports:

Cognitive, physical and social-emotional development

School readiness

Lifelong healthy eating

*Data from Voices for Georgia’s Children “All About Kids Factsheets,” January 2021 Edition, Quality Care for Children “2020 Overview” and National Farm to School Network “The Benefits of Farm to School.”

Cross-sector partnerships strengthen farm to early care and education

Little Ones Learning Center is just one of many partners helping spread farm to early care and education to kids throughout Georgia. A broad-based collaborative of more than 45 partners, the Georgia Farm to Early Care and Education Coalition has teamed up with the Georgia Farm to School Alliance to align around a strategy for advancing equity. Their goal is to support access to healthy, fresh and affordable foods and culturally responsive nutrition education for all children and families.

“We’re as successful as we are in Georgia at making system-wide change because the Departments of Early Care and Learning, Education, Public Health and Agriculture are all stakeholders in this work,” says Kimberly Della Donna, farm to school director at Georgia Organics. “And we’ve had private foundations who see the value in this network, and nonprofit leadership really pushing for innovation and being nimble enough to bring everyone together.”

To support this statewide vision, Little Ones Learning Center, The Common Market Southeast, Georgia Organics, Quality Care for Children and Voices for Georgia’s Children established the Learning Collaborative, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Together, the organizations are designing a farm to early care and education model that can be replicated across Georgia.

“Each partner is a subject matter expert, and we leverage our experiences to work in a collaborative way to address hunger and nutrition,” says Reynaldo Green, vice president of nutrition and family well-being for Quality Care for Children. That expertise ranges from policy advocacy for children and families, food procurement, child care provider training or evidence-based research. “Instead of working in silos, we are able to hold hands as if we are one organization, working together to solve issues in Georgia.”

Building capacity equitably

The Learning Collaborative has been an important vehicle for building farm to early care and education in Georgia. The goal: Engage children and early care and education providers to increase preschoolers’ interest in and consumption of local foods grown in and near Georgia.

Coordinated by Quality Care for Children, the Learning Collaborative has brought together early care and education providers from 33 different sites for training on why farm to early care and education matters and why supporting Georgia’s farmers matters. Providers gain knowledge about procuring local foods and preparing them with children and their families. They learn new curricula and fun activities for meeting the state’s quality early learning standards. In coming together, they are able to share best practices, problem-solve with one another and build a collective voice to advocate for policy change.

A young girl posing for a fun photo at the child care center’s flourishing garden. Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, GA.

“Equity is so important to the work that we’re doing,” Reynaldo says. “Farm to early care and education has allowed us to really explore and have meaningful conversations together. We’ve approached communities deliberately by identifying the type of organizations we want to work with and inviting them to tell us what they really need.”

Providers in the collaborative receive mini-grants and technical assistance to help put their ideas into action. With this funding, providers have started gardens, networked with other providers to aggregate purchasing and forged partnerships with local farmers. For example, Little Ones Learning Center used their funds to develop new relationships with small Black farmers, including Rowe Organic Farms and Atlanta Harvest.

“We have been intentional with the types of farms we support, prioritizing the ones that are socially and economically disadvantaged,” says Wande Okunoren-Meadows, early childhood program administrator at Little Ones Learning Center. “We have to make sure that we are supporting those that are doing the work, have been on the land and have been working the land.”

Extending farm-fresh food for the community

“Farm to early care and education is not just impacting our children, it's impacting their families, their parents and their grandparents. They're able to modify their lifestyles and learn something new that is going to help them throughout their lives."

Stacie McQuagge

For example, in 2019, Little Ones Learning Center decided to start a farm stand to improve the community’s access to healthy foods. “The grocery store that is right here, two blocks from our center, does not sell fresh fruits and vegetables,” Stacie adds.

Now, on the first and third Wednesday of every month, Little Ones Learning Center educators and staff sell fresh produce from the center’s Jazmin Green Community Garden at the Little Lions Farm Stand. Children shop with “Lion Bucks” they earn in their classrooms, and parents are invited to purchase from the stand using cash, credit or Double EBT, a matching program that lets people get $2 in food for every $1 spent in food stamp money. Little Ones Learning Center also partners with The Common Market, a regional food distributor that connects communities with food from sustainable family farms, and other local farmers to offer a variety of fresh produce.

A young boy and his father learn how cucumbers grow in the garden at The Learning Tree Academy in Toccoa, GA. Photo courtesy of Quality Care for Children.

Keeping the center’s farm stand open has been a community effort. When the stand was threatened by permitting and zoning restrictions, parents, community members, local organizations like Food Well Alliance, private funders, policymakers and national partners like the National Farm to School Network all stood together through a year-long battle to support the farm stand.

A group of children sit outside the child care center next to one of the garden’s fruit trees. Photo courtesy of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, GA.

Lifting up community voices

Not only are early care and education providers and families finding agency in healthy eating, they are finding agency in advocating for policy change.

Through the Learning Collaborative, providers have raised the issues of burdensome paperwork and lack of transparency as barriers to participating in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). With support from Voices for Georgia’s Children and Georgia Organics, they are learning how to effectively tell their stories about farm to early care and education and which decision-makers to engage.

“If more policymakers understood just how critical good nutrition is in the early years of a child’s life and how that can really set the trajectory for a child’s learning and development … it would be a ‘no brainer’ to invest in farm to early care programs and policies,” says Melissa Haberlen DeWolf, research and policy director at Voices for Georgia’s Children.

Voices for Georgia’s Children has provided similar training for the coalition to highlight barriers to accessing CACFP funding and lift up opportunities for improvement. Voices has also been coordinating with the Department of Early Care and Learning to integrate farm to early care and education into the state’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) that assesses early and school-age care and education programs. It’s also a way to support equitable access to nutritious foods for children’s healthy development

Fostering enduring change

“Policies and systems change is a long game, but one that’s needed and can be won,” says Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. “It’s often incremental or two steps forward, one step back, but not investing in it is the sure-fire way for nothing to change.”

Through an evaluation conducted by Georgia Health Policy Center, early care and education centers reported knowledge, awareness and behavior change among educators and staff, parents and children from implementing farm to early care and education. “We’re seeing how farm to early care and education affects the whole child,” says Debra Kibbe, senior research associate at Georgia Health Policy Center. “Farm to early care is not ‘just’ procurement of local foods and gardening, it is a broader strategy through which health and well-being can be achieved.”

“Policies and systems change is a long game, but one that's needed and can be won. It's often incremental or two steps forward, one step back, but not investing in it is the sure-fire way for nothing to change.”

Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children

Lessons Learned

Listen to and engage providers.

Training and professional development must extend to providers on the ground. “What I do need are people in the programs working one-on-one with the teachers … If we’re really going to make it understandable and teachable, it has to be embedded in a holistic way into everything we do — from family engagement to even who we hire in the kitchen. It’s about equipping and developing capacity within the child care center … we need real-deal intensive technical assistants working inside our buildings and programs,” Wande says.

Extend farm to early care and education programming to families.

An integral part of farm to early care and education is parent engagement. “There’s that education component, the nutrition component and another piece ensuring that families are able to access nutritious foods outside of the early care setting, too…. [Farm to early care and education] ensures that children are not just taught that this is healthy food and this is the way that you should be eating, but can also address access at home and educate parents how to procure [healthy food] for them,” Melissa says.

Make procurement easier for providers and local farmers.

A common challenge among early care and education providers can be procuring locally sourced foods, especially for smaller centers and home-based providers with limited resources. For the Georgia partners, an important step to connecting providers and farmers was assessing the distribution and supply chains available to early care and education centers. Through interviews with food aggregators, suppliers and hubs, as well as with providers, Georgia Organics identified gaps and opportunities. Key outcomes were the publication of a Local Food Sourcing Directory to make it easier for providers to find locally sourced options, as well as Farm to Early Care Sourcing Strategies with recommendations for working with local distributors and farmers.

Commit to funding farm to early care and education.

Providers cite lack of funding as one of the biggest hurdles to implementing farm to early care and education programs. The demand is great. For each cohort, the Learning Collaborative received hundreds more applications than available funds. Farm to early care and education is a proven investment: “It’s really powerful how this feedback loop of local farms, our state’s number one industry, supports our number one future asset, our children,” Erica says.

Since 2015, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has invested more than $18 million in a five-year, five-state pilot for farm to early care and education to support healthy children and sustainable local food systems. This story was made possible by interviews with Georgia partners: Georgia Health Policy Center, Georgia Organics, Little Ones Learning Center, Quality Care for Children and Voices for Georgia’s Children.

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