In June of 2016 The Parenting Place, a Child Care Resource & Referral agency in La Crosse, WI, was awarded funding through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to implement Farm to Early Care and Education (Farm to ECE) practices with local child care programs in La Crosse County. The Parenting Place is working collaboratively on implementation with Community GroundWorks and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Wisconsin is one of four states working with the Kellogg Foundation as part of a larger project on behalf of Farm to ECE aimed at children ages 0-5, to increase access to fresh and local food options for children in early care and education, and to build children and families’ knowledge about healthy eating in care and at home.
“Right now, our obesity rate is so high in children and they have lost the connection of where their food comes from,” said Farm to Early Care & Education Program Coordinator Emily Doblar, adding that the accessibility and low cost of fast food means some children don’t even frequent grocery stores often. Farm to ECE is “really just giving them a sense of community and excitement about healthy food while educating and engaging families makes a huge impact.”
This project is intended to run for 2 years, and The Parenting Place has chosen five child care sites for initial implementation of this project through a detailed application process. Emily currently works with these five sites. In the second year of the project another five sites will be chosen through a similar application process.
Emily not only works closely with the five participating child care programs but with local farmers, Master Gardeners, greenhouses and trainers like Community Groundworks to build lasting connections for these programs to access fresh, local food and provide hands-on experiences for children in care, such as field trips to local farms or having a garden onsite.
“Relationships are an important part of this work in so many aspects,” explained Emily. “We learn from our grant partners, child care sites and from the local farmers and growers that are working together to make this program a success.”
Each child care program has completed a Farm to ECE self-assessment identifying potential for growth in areas including purchasing and serving fresh and local food, family engagement, onsite gardens, and hands-on learning. From these self-assessments, programs have worked with Emily to create a Farm to ECE Action Plan, identifying steps to take and materials they need to meet their Farm to ECE goals, including ways to sustain those changes after the project with The Parenting Place is completed. The concept for both the self-assessments and the Action Plans are loosely based on similar tools used in YoungStar, Wisconsin’s Child Care Quality Rating & Improvement System. The Parenting Place provides partial funding for programs to meet their goals in a sustainable manner, such as child-sized gardening implements, tools to prepare local produce, field trips to farms or farmer’s markets, resources to host family engagement events, or gardening workshops for child care providers.
The connections Emily is building between early educators and local farming/gardening experts, has helped to overcome some of the unique challenges that ECE programs face in building Farm to ECE into their daily routines. Unlike many WI K-12 schools, child care programs are far more varied in the number of children they have at one time, making it difficult to meet minimum ordering requirements for farms and other fresh food vendors. Some child care programs have very limited budgets to work with, are in areas where it may be unsafe to leave for field trips, or have very little green space or light exposure for a garden. Each program also has their own philosophy that guides the care of the children and may affect how they approach Farm to ECE implementation. Furthermore, there is the need to consider cultural diversity across programs and families and how the Farm to ECE approach might look a little different to meet the varied needs of family and program cultures. For instance, Emily is working with a Hmong preschool teacher familiar with Farm to ECE to engage with Hmong farmers and is working with Community Groundworks to revise the Farm to ECE materials and approach to be a better fit for this purpose. Emily has been able to work with each program from where they are starting and what they need, getting local farmers and other resources in place to support program efforts.
“A lot of [the farmers] are really excited,” said Emily, noting successes like one local beef farmer who is on the board of a Farmer’s Market and would like to offer a family night with a petting zoo. Other organic growers have offered to send e-mails every few weeks to program sites to let them know when food is available at a reduced cost. Several farmers are open to having programs out for field trips, and a few have even offered to bring learning opportunities from the farm onsite for programs that are unable to travel from their building. Participating providers are also enthusiastic and have started to meet and discuss ideas and resources amongst themselves, a collaboration they plan to continue.
The end goal of this 2-year project (which concludes in May of 2018) is to impact approximately 250 children through the selected 10 child care program sites, by creating lasting changes in how these children and child care programs approach and understand healthy, local eating. Programs will be working to have sustainability plans in place so that they can continue integrating Farm to ECE into their daily routine beyond this project. Lessons learned from this project and the methodology used can then serve as a model for other ECE sites nationally, and could be used to inform future regulations, quality rating criteria or accreditation standards.