Building Networks to Grow Healthy Futures: A National Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group

What if every child had access to healthy, local food and experiential learning opportunities in quality early care and education settings?

Photo of Lacy Stephens
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

As a nutrition and garden educator in Missouri and Kansas for five years, the most valuable reward I received was a profound “thank you” from the director of an inner city preschool. “You are helping our families live healthy in a food desert,” she wrote. While seeing children relish the taste of freshly grown carrots and delight in bringing fresh greens home to their parents was a daily pleasure, this comment reflects the true potential and resonating benefits of farm to early care and education. The food and garden lessons were not just helping each child love their veggies, but also building strong, healthy families and resilient, engaged communities.

As the Farm to Early Care and Education Associate with the National Farm to School Network (NFSN), I hear similarly compelling stories from communities across the country engaged in farm to early care and education activities. In order to spread and scale this impact and increase the number of children, families, and communities benefiting from farm to early care and education, we must support advocacy, network building, and information sharing centered around farm to early care and education successes and stories. The NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group aims to do this by building a strong network of leaders across the country and by empowering them to promote change from the local to the national level to ensure increased access to valuable farm to early care and education experiences for all children.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

Website

www.farmtoschool.org

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Illinois

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Chicago

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Virginia

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is a national nonprofit with partners and members in all 50 states and Washington, DC. NFSN capitalizes on its strong Core Partner structure (8 Regional and 51 State Leads) and member network (12,000+ members) to ensure that our efforts are community-driven and grassroots, shared through peer learning and best practices to resonate and create impact at the national, state, and local levels in urban, rural, suburban, and tribal communities.

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Young children, especially those from low-income families, face significant challenges to healthy cognitive, social, physical, and emotional development. Of children ages two to five, 22.8% are currently overweight or obese and 23.7% of households with children under four face food insecurity. Also, despite the increasingly recognized importance of high quality early education, by age four only 17% of low-income children are enrolled in high quality early education programs.

With eight million children spending an average of 33 hours per week in early care and education settings, these sites are important avenues to reach at risk children and families and address these complex problems. Farm to early care and education uses a flexible, multi-pronged approach to create a culture of wellness and high quality learning opportunities in early care and education settings.

Project Summary:

An extension of the K-12 farm to school model, farm to early care and education incorporates the core elements of procurement, gardens, and education to promote health and wellbeing, engage families and communities, and enhance the quality of the educational setting. 


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These activities and benefits align with the goals of the early care and education community and contribute to a strong sense of community, inclusion, and empowerment for early care and education providers, young children, and their families.    

The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) has been engaged in working with the nation’s youngest children since 2011 and launched the NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group in early 2016 with the aim of furthering the reach of farm to early care and education across the country. The diverse group of leaders involved in the Working Group -including stakeholders from early care and education advocacy organizations, federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and community and food systems non-profits - come together in cross-sectoral collaboration to propel the farm to early care and education movement at multiple levels. While some members engage with communities and children in programmatic work on the ground, others work to strengthen national and state networks or influence federal and state policy, but all with the distinct motivation of ensuring more children, families, and practitioners connect with their community and cultural food traditions and develop personal agency to make healthy choices. The efforts of these leaders in diverse sectors is building both short and long term capacity and opportunity for families and practitioners to actively engage in the lives of the next generation and build learning environments and communities that support a lifetime of health and wellbeing for children through farm to early care and education.

Project Details:

National Farm to School Network


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The National Farm to School Network (NFSN) is a national nonprofit organization that serves as an information, advocacy, and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into schools and early care and education settings. NFSN’s mission is to promote the expansion of farm to school activities in order to empower children and their families to make informed food choices, while strengthening the local economy and contributing to vibrant communities.

Established in 2007, NFSN works to provide vision, leadership, and support at the state, regional, and national levels to connect stakeholders and expand the farm to school movement, which has grown from a handful of schools in the late 1990s to over 42,000 schools in all 50 states by 2015. NFSN includes national staff, eight Regional Lead Agencies, 51 State Leads, an Advisory Board, and thousands of farm to school supporters. In response to demand from K-12 and early childhood stakeholders, NFSN began working to expand its network and expertise to include farm to school in early care and education settings in 2011. Since then, NFSN has acted as a lead convener and facilitator for this work.

Farm to Early Care and Education

Farm to early care and education is a group of activities and strategies that include the use of local foods in meals and snacks, gardening opportunities, and food-based learning activities implemented with the goals of promoting health and wellness and enhancing the quality of the educational experience. Farm to early care and education works well in all types of early care and education settings, inclusive of, but not limited to preschools, child care centers, family child care homes, Head Start/ Early Head Start, and programs in K-12 school districts.

Farm to early care and education activities aim to address several issues prevalent in early childhood with benefits that align with the priorities of the early care and education community. The early years of life are a critical period for developing healthy and appropriate eating habits that promote lifelong healthy weight. Repeated exposures to fruits and vegetables at a young age, like the exposures offered through farm to early care and education, help develop healthy taste preferences and influence future eating behavior and willingness to try new foods.  

Farm to early care and education activities – such as gardening, cooking lessons, and taste tests – offer opportunities for experiential, hands-on learning, an important component of high quality early learning, and help meet many cognitive, emotional, social, and physical learning objectives for young children. Further, farm to early care and education activities, from family meals featuring local foods to garden work days and farm field trips, promote opportunities for meaningful parental engagement, a high priority for early care and education programs and an important component in healthy early development.

In addition to promoting health, wellness, and high quality learning, farm to early care and education expands healthy food access for our most vulnerable children. With increased access to healthy options and the ability to grow their own food, children and families are empowered to make healthful choices and find an increased sense of personal agency. At the community level, farm to early care and education provides additional market opportunities for farmers and supports thriving local food systems.

Convening for Expanded Success: NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group

Since January 2016, NFSN has convened the Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group, a select group of cross-sectoral stakeholders brought together to coalesce the knowledge, resources, and experience of its diverse membership to guide and promote the national farm to early care and education movement. The overarching objective of the group is to identify the gaps in resources, networking, and policy needed to promote expansion and institutionalization of farm to early care and education at the national, state and local levels.

The Working Group has honed in on three key activities as priority opportunities to support the group’s objectives.

  • Plan and execute quarterly webinars to share successes, challenges, and opportunities in farm to early care and education with a broad audience of diverse stakeholders.
  • Collate current farm to early care and education research and utilize collected research to create advocacy and educational tools that convey evidence-based benefits of early care and education and alignment with the priorities and standards of the early care and education community. 
  • Identify opportunities and gaps in culturally relevant farm to early care and education resources by identifying currently available culturally appropriate resources and partnering with diverse communities to identify and develop educational tools that support and elevate connections to heritage, culture, and community.   

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Education
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Food Systems, Policy/Advocacy, Healthy Food Access

Year Founded

2007

Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

The NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group’s April 2016 webinar focused on state level partnerships to expand farm to early care and education. Participants used the information presented and took action. A Pennsylvania nonprofit connected with the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) state planning team to discuss integration of health and wellness into the state CCDF plan. A department of health agent in Arizona reached out to share farm to early care and education curriculum with the Head Start Collaboration Office. Spurred by the Working Group, these examples and others facilitate action within communities, building the network of farm to early care and education champions and impacting providers, children, and families.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

Though the NFSN Farm to Early Care and Education Working Group has convened for only six months, the reach and potential impact is already clear. Working Group members participated in dissemination of a survey to early care and education practitioners to determine challenges and opportunities in farm to early care and education that garnered over 1500 responses through snowball sampling. Additionally, the first two webinars presented by the Working Group were each attended by over 50 stakeholders, including federal and state agencies, advocacy organizations, and practitioners. Finally, the listserve established to share information amongst national stakeholder already has over 115 members.

This broad reach exemplifies both the impact that the resources developed and disseminated by the Working Group will have, and the growing national interest in farm to early care and education.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $1mil - $5mil

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

NFSN has diversified funding sources to support the core functions of the organization. Convening of the Working Group itself will not require separate funding outside our general operations and salary support for the Farm to Early Care and Education Associate. The Working Group will capitalize on the diverse knowledge, resources, and connections of members as well as the well established NFSN network to achieve the goals of the group.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

As early education leaders work to increase access to high quality programming and local and state leaders take a grassroots approach to ensuring children have access to healthy, local foods and food-based education, no other organization seeks to unite these sectors. As a national leader and convener, NFSN is uniquely bridging early care and food systems. With its multi-tiered structure, and serving as a hub for information, advocacy and networking, NFSN is in a vital position to connect leaders from across sectors to shape the strategic direction of farm to early care and education.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

The initiative to create unified systems to support implementation of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems for early care and education is an exciting advance. By unifying the diverse players that influence the lives of young children, the quality and access to resources and opportunities will continue to improve and support short and long term success for each child. Additionally, the role of early care and education providers as vital influencers of child success and family wellbeing must continue to be elevated and increasingly valued, both culturally and through resource allocation.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Email

Program Design Clarity

The current Working Group-consisting of leaders from early care and education organizations, federal and state agencies, academic institutions, and community and food systems non-profits- meets on a monthly basis to collaborate on initiatives aimed at expanding farm to early care and education. Members are empowered to bring the beneficial resources and information developed to communities across the country and Information is further shared to national audiences through NFSN quarterly webinars, list serves, monthly newsletters, blog posts, and conference presentations.

Community Leadership

Comprised of leaders from diverse communities, our Working Group lifts up food-based initiatives as opportunity to celebrate and embrace cultural diversity and traditional foodways. With a strong focus on cultural relevancy and equitable opportunity, we partner with communities to develop resources, implement culturally appropriate initiatives, and empower communities to make healthy choices and build healthy community food systems.

Age of Children Impacted

  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5

Spread Strategies

Our unique Working Group model and multi-tiered network structure of NFSN creates opportunity to spread, scale, and institutionalize farm to early care and education initiatives across the US. Resources, best practices, and policy levers are disseminated through NFSN’s State and Regional Leads and strategic partners for on-the-ground implementation, with the ultimate goal of providing access to farm to early care and education to all children.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

Community based farm to early care and education initiatives empower children and their families to make healthy choices, grow food, and support community food systems that offer equitable access to healthy food for all. These initiatives contribute to high quality learning environments that support social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development while creating meaningful family engagement opportunities and supporting thriving communities.

Leadership Story

As an adult, I finally discovered the power of a positive relationship with food. This impactful change in my life led me to think about the profound impact on health, communities, and our environment we could have if children could develop healthy relationships with food and our food system from the very beginning. Through work in various aspects of the food system, from farms to school kitchens, I realized that education is not sufficient. We must work to strengthen policy and infrastructure to build healthy, sustainable environments that promote cultures of health for future generations.

Organization's Twitter Handle

@farmtoschool

Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

https://www.facebook.com/National-Farm-to-School-Network-203705623006172/

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

https://www.linkedin.com/in/lacy-stephens-ms-rdn-9

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Photo of Jessie Mandle
Team

Very exciting to see farm-to-school expand to early child care and the working group's efforts to provide this level of support, analysis and national connections!

Photo of Lacy Stephens
Team

Hi Jessie, Thank you so much for your comment and for taking the time to read our proposal. I'd be happy to share with you more about our work and our efforts to connect children across the country to the benefits of local foods, gardening, and food related educational experiences. Please feel free to reach out at any time! lacy@farmtoschool.org

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