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.
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.
National Farm to School Network
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.