Component 1: Gardening
Gardens in ECE programs can introduce new foods to children, and can improve healthy habits for a lifetime. The Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) of North Carolina State’s College of Design has expert resources on gardening with young children. The NLI has identified the following benefits of gardening with young children:
- Provides opportunities for building science skills, such as observation, inquiry, and experimentation
- Increases motivation to taste, eat, and enjoy the produce they grow
- Builds respect for nature and our environment
- Provides opportunities for increased family engagement in school environments
How can you plug in?
- Provide an introduction to gardening basics
Early childhood educators may be interested in gardening but could be new to the field. They will need guidance on where to start, and they may need to know how to build raised beds, start a garden from scratch, how and why to start small, and knowing what to plant as well as where to plant it, at what time of the year, and when it will be ready for harvest. Their needs are similar to a backyard gardener, although they need to be aware of the special considerations for small bodies with small hands in the garden.
- Provide gardening information for center staff and families
Information-sharing, publications, plant material, tools, and soil amendments are just a few of the resources that can be provided to child care center staff. Connections to other resources can also be shared.
- Provide consult on garden technical issues
Existing gardeners may need guidance from an agent or an Extension Master GardenerSM volunteer (EMGV) to solve common garden problems, such as pests or irrigation issues.
- Teach backyard gardening workshops
Families may be interested in a series of workshops, as garden fever spreads into the homes of the children and families served by the centers.
- Recruit, train, and manage volunteers
Volunteers are an important factor in the success of the gardens. Recruit, train, and manage volunteers through the EMGV program, the 4-H program, or even parents. Some volunteers may love working with children and leading activities, while others may want to work in the garden behind the scenes, or to work primarily with the program administrators. It is helpful to determine the preferences and strengths of your volunteers for the most success, and to provide opportunities that match their interests and skills.
- Promote diverse, inclusive, and equitable programming
Engage parents and the community of young children in deciding what to grow in the center’s garden. Encourage children to bring in recipes and to grow fruits and vegetables featured in popular dishes from their home or community.
- Connect with farmers, local community gardens, and nurseries
These stakeholders can provide educational opportunities and can contribute seedlings or other gardening supplies to the centers.
Gardening is a multifaceted learning experience for children and may not always yield a bumper crop. Recognizing the value of the different benefits will allow participants to garden for the experience, and not just for production. To tailor the gardening experience to young children:
- Consider using smaller beds, such as 3 ft × 8 ft, so that smaller children can reach to the middle of the beds and access the garden from both sides
- Provide smaller gardening tools, which are appropriately sized for children’s smaller hands
- Grow herbs and textured plants, which create a sensory garden and an ideal learning environment for infants and toddlers
- Avoid plants that are toxic to children—see resources at NC Poison Control
- Use this Environmental Health Q&A document to learn directly from Children’s Environmental Health about what is allowable and unallowable in a child care garden
- Natural Learning Initiative Gardening Activity Guide
- Natural Learning Initiative Resources
- Natural Learning Initiative: Best Practices Toolkit
- Childcare Production Gardens Extension Publication series
- Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project—Growing Minds Farm to Preschool Toolkit
- CEFS Farm to ECE Initiative—Learning Bursts
- Children’s Environmental Health Q&A Document—What is allowed in a child care garden?
- Gardening in Preschools
- Food Safety in the Garden
- Collard Greens and Common Ground: a North Carolina Community Food Gardening Handbook
Component 2: Cooking
Early Care and Education environments provide rich opportunities to work with cooking staff, teachers, and children in preparing and promoting fresh, local foods. At the same time, cooking with children offers unique opportunities for building social and emotional skills, as well as cognitive, physical, and language skills. Cooking with children also provides enriching Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math (STEAM) opportunities that are conducive to the children’s success when they enter school.
Cooking with young children promotes healthy eating habits that become the foundation for lifelong healthy nutrition. When teachers introduce healthy foods to young children in a relaxed and fun environment, children absorb the information and utilize this knowledge as they continue to grow and make their own food choices. When working in ECE classrooms or home child care sites, it is important to remember that young children look to adults as role models and will absorb information “like a sponge.”
How can you plug in?
- Work with ECE Teachers. Extension agents can provide teachers with workshops on cooking with children, and they can connect teachers with the knowledge and resources to conduct cooking activities in their classroom. Some ideas for teachers to encourage healthy eating and teaching children about nutrition include:
- Eat healthy foods in front of the children. Seeing an adult try healthy foods can encourage a child to follow along. Have open, honest conversations with children about the nutritional content of food and how nutrition affects their health.
- Introduce new foods through taste tests.
- Incorporate new foods within the menus at school.
- Make introducing new healthy foods a hands-on activity that is fun for all.
Resources for teachers include children’s books, lessons that involve tasting fresh food, and cooking toolkits.
- Color Me Healthy (with opportunities for embedding local foods taste tests into nutrition education)
- Cooking Local Foods with Children (Best practices, equipment recommendations, recipes, and more)
- Harvest for Healthy Kids Activity Kits
- Classroom Cooking Cart
- Taste Test Box—Small Bites Adventure Club
- Sign up here for the Annual NC Crunch!
SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed) is a federally-funded, evidence-based program that helps people lead healthy, active lives. SNAP-Ed’s goal is to improve the likelihood that persons eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will make healthy food and lifestyle choices that prevent obesity. SNAP-Ed teaches families how to make their SNAP dollars stretch, how to shop for and cook healthy meals, and how to stay physically active. North Carolina State’s SNAP-Ed program, Steps to Health, offers the Color Me Healthy curriculum to eligible child care programs, a program developed for children four and five with fun, interactive learning opportunities on healthy eating and physical activity. Steps to Health also incorporates Farm to ECE and gardening as part of its emphasis on policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) changes. Steps to Health has helpful information on how to grow food, including the Grow Food From Seeds! brochure.
- Work with Cooking Staff Agents can provide technical assistance to cooking staff who are new to preparing fresh food. Switching from canned food to fresh, local food can be a challenge, and may require new skills and equipment to prepare. Consider including the center’s cooking staff in any Farm to ECE workshops delivered to educators. These resources can help train kitchen staff:
- Work with Families Extension agents can provide workshops and resources for parents and caregivers that include children in the cooking. These resources promote cooking activities at home:
- Making Your Own Local Baby Food
- Cooking With Preschool Children
- Cooking with Kids—(Recipes, how-to videos, and kids activities)
- Farm to Home Explorer Kit—Small Bites Adventure Club
- ChopChop Family
- Agents can also provide nutrition and cooking programs with families at child care centers, such as NC Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and Med Instead of Meds.
The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) is a federal program that provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults who are enrolled at participating child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers. Enrolled centers must meet federal nutritional guidelines for all meals and snacks, and submit receipts for reimbursement.
Sanitation in the Classroom
The North Carolina Sanitation Regulations for Child Care Centers regulates food activity in the early childhood classroom. Children’s Environmental Health Q&A document identifies these regulations for teachers and technical assistance providers.
Even if your county CEH consultant states that you cannot cook in the classroom, it is still possible to do smaller, simpler taste tests, as long as children only touch the food that they are eating, such as a local cucumber slice or raw carrots with a ranch dip the student makes on their own plate.
- Questions you may want to ask the Program Director or cooking staff:
- What can we cook with children in a classroom? What can we not cook?
- What food allergies do we need to be aware of?
- How can we store items for the cooking activity?
- How do we clean cooking surfaces, and what can we use for cleaning?
Component 3: Local Food Purchasing
Early Care and Education Programs in your community are potential customers for local farmers, because most programs serve two meals and one snack every day. Purchasing local food directly from a farm helps to support farmers. It can also help farmers build their consumer base, because ECE centers inform parents and staff about the source of foods so that they can locate that farmer at other markets. Local food can also come through a distributor that still supports local farmers. Buying local food ideally improves the health of rural economies, helps farmers remain in business (which preserves farmland), and provides highly nutritious food for consumers. For a full guide to helping child care programs purchase locally, see NC State Extension’s Farm to Early Care and Education (ECE) Local Food Purchasing Guide.
How can you plug in?
Extension agents can serve a pivotal role as a connector for ECE programs and farmers, because they know the local farmers in the area that can serve the centers’ needs. Since the ECE providers may not have built relationships with farmers or know how to meet them, they often rely on agents to make these connections.
Agents can also help centers promote local foods to the children and families they serve. This assistance might include providing recipes, taste testing new foods, and cooking in the classroom to familiarize children with new menu items.
In Farm to ECE, it’s important to think of the entire child care community as the audience, not just the center that is directly purchasing local food. Agents can assist with providing farmer profiles for child care newsletters, linking the centers and families to CSA boxes from local farmers, or arranging events that connect farmers and the child care community (for example, setting up a farm stand at a child care center). Teneshia Tyson, Director at Follow the Son Child Care Center, was able to do just that (Farm to Early Care and Education success stories). Also, consider connecting farmers, local community gardens, and nurseries with the ECE program to create educational opportunities, such as field trips and special guest visits to the classroom.
Agents can also assist ECE directors in promoting diverse, inclusive, and equitable meal environments by serving foods from local farmers that reflect the food traditions of the children and families they serve. This helps all children and families develop a feeling of belonging in the school.
The how, what, and why of local purchasing will be different in every center. It depends on what is available in your region, as well as the centers’ priorities, preferences, and capacity for purchasing and preparing local food items. Some centers may start small and focus on including food from their garden into snack time, while others may connect with distributors or food hubs, so that they can have multiple local food items at every meal (find out more about food hubs operating in North Carolina). Others may even be interested in connecting directly with a farmer, and making local food purchasing available for families and staff.
Many child care centers may be interested in purchasing low volumes of food, since their capacity to process fresh foods may be limited and serving sizes for young children are small. This can also make delivery challenging, although some child care directors may be willing to go to the farmers’ market to pick up orders. Despite the fact that centers may purchase small volumes, they provide an opportunity for farmers to connect to their communities and to increase their profile by advertising to families through newsletters, menus, and cross-promoting on the centers’ social media pages.
We have developed a ”Decision Tree” as part of our local food purchasing guide for Farm to ECE to help child care and technical assistance providers consider all options and decide what local food purchasing works for them. The guide provides centers with a step-by-step process to: (1) assess their food capacity; (2) determine the best local food source and find vendors; (3) clarify their definition of local food, and understand how local purchasing fits into CACFP, and (4) take steps to purchase local food. The guide includes a decision tree to support centers as they move through these steps, as well as a description of different types of local food vendors and best practices for building successful local food relationships. In addition to the decision tree, we provide a menu analysis worksheet, a template for communicating with distributors and farmers about local food questions and concerns, and a list of additional resources.
- Farm to ECE Local Food Purchasing Guide
- Learning Bursts
“Promoting Local Foods in the ECE Community”
Local on the Menu: Wilkes Developmental Day School
Wilkes Developmental Day School in Wilkesboro, North Carolina faced a logistical challenge in procuring local ingredients from individual farms. To address this barrier, the school worked with their current food supplier, US Foods, to identify local items available for purchase. Through US Foods, the school was able to order locally-produced foods, such as trout from the North Carolina mountains, without having to change their system of billing or delivery. The school chef is a graduate of the local community college culinary program and was able to replace fish sticks with the local trout featured in the photo below.
Publication date: Jan. 19, 2023
Other Publications in Farm to Early Care and Education Resource Guide for North Carolina Extension Agents
- Farm to Early Care and Education
- Connecting to Early Childhood Partners in Your Community
- Three Components of Farm to ECE: Gardening, Cooking, and Local Food Purchasing
- Diverse, Inclusive, and Equitable Family Engagement Opportunities with Farm to ECE
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