Above photo by Meagan K. Shedd, Ph.D.
By Melanie Wong, MA, RDN, Groundwork Farm to Early Care and Education Specialist, with contributions from Meagan K. Shedd, Ph.D., MSU Center for Regional Food Systems
Early childhood is one of the most important times of our lives. Ripe with opportunities for learning and growth, the early years set the foundation for everything that makes up a person. For our youngest learners, every interaction is a learning opportunity, farm to early care and education (ECE) activities are another way to familiarize young children with something they will interact with every day for the rest of their lives—food. But what exactly is farm to ECE anyway?
What is Farm to ECE?
Farm to ECE is a group of activities or strategies that support the health, growth, and learning of children aged 0-5 through:
- Gardening activities
- Food, nutrition, and agricultural education activities
- Buying and serving local food
Farm to ECE exists as a way for young children to engage in experiences that set them up for a healthy lifelong relationship with food, nutrition, and the community around them. At the center of farm to ECE is connection—the relationships with food and health, with their peers, and with adults around them. The reality is there is nothing new about farm to ECE activities like gardening with children, teaching them about food and nutrition basics, and supporting local food producers by buying and serving local food. Many child care providers likely are already doing activities like these with children they are caring for and educating on a daily basis.
Everyday activities might include helping children learn the basics of food preparation, like cutting up apples for snack or sprinkling seasoning over produce as part of cooking a recipe. Both are simple but effective ways of offering children an experience to connect with and learn about food. As children help with this task, providers can talk about how the food was grown and where it comes from, whether from an ECE center’s own garden or a nearby farm. And these opportunities can also help meet important learning standards, including fine and gross motor skills, and cultivating a willingness to explore and try new things. Farm to ECE activities should be seen as an additional tool to help ECE providers fulfill early learning standards.
When we talk with child care providers, we often discover they are implementing farm to ECE activities but may not call them that. Some have shared that they don’t have a huge garden full of vegetables or aren’t able to visit a local farm, so they think they aren’t doing farm to ECE activities. However, when they start describing what is taking place in their settings, we find that they are actually integrating farm to ECE in so many different ways. Here are some examples that you might be doing too:
- Buying blueberries or other locally grown produce from the farm down the road and serving it for snacks or meals.
- Encouraging the children to try new fruits or vegetables on their plates, with positive modeling.
- Planting seeds in little paper cups and placing them in the windowsill to let children watch them grow.
- Providing children with toy fruits and vegetables, farmers market setups, or kitchen setups in the play area.
- Planting herbs in a small container garden that the children can interact with as the plants grow.
Small experiences add up and create a starting point. There is “farm” in the name “farm to ECE,” but the activities that make up farm to ECE are not limited to farms. What is most important is recognizing the activities that are farm to ECE, talking about them as such, and sharing our experiences with one another to help learn from one another and support the learning and health of young children.
As farm to ECE continues to interest providers across Michigan and beyond, here are some resources to support the implementation of farm to ECE:
- The Michigan farm to ECE (MI F2ECE) network aims to connect child care providers, farmers, and supporters of farm to ECE. The MI F2ECE Listserv is how providers and supporters share news, knowledge, and resources about farm to ECE.
- Everything in Good Season: Growing Farm to Early Care and Education: A beginner farm to ECE guide geared toward home-based child care settings complete with activities, recipes, and guidance for getting started with growing farm to ECE organized by season.
- Garden Based Learning for Early Childhood Settings: Keep Growing Detroit’s Garden Based Learning guide offers an approachable start to gardening with children with activities, recipes, and tips for starting a garden and how to care for it.
- Michigan’s Guide to What’s in Season Now: This printable guide folds to the size of a business card you can take with you on the go and describes the availability of Michigan-grown vegetables, herbs, and fruits throughout the year.
- 10 Cents a Meal for Michigan’s Kids and Farms: 10 Cents a Meal offers direct funding support for local food purchasing in early care and education settings that feed children with USDA Child Nutrition Programs. While the funding is specifically for buying Michigan-grown produce, this food can be used in meals or snacks and for supportive food and nutrition activities that support children’s learning beyond the plate.
- The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP): The CACFP is a USDA Child Nutrition Program that provides reimbursement for nutritious meals and snacks served to young children at participating child care sites. Local food that meets the requirements of the CACFP meal pattern is reimbursable. Serving local and seasonal foods is considered a best practice.
Including farm to ECE activities should not feel like “one more thing” but rather a recognition of “the things we are already doing.” As we begin to use a shared language about farm to ECE and talk about these activities with one another, the term “farm to ECE” will also become part of our everyday language. Until then, it is important to recognize that these important things ECE providers are doing every day with young children, including buying food grown from a local farmer, talking about how it is grown and where it comes from, making a recipe together, planting seeds, or setting up a dramatic play area like a farmers market all fall under the umbrella of farm to ECE. In other words, when it comes to farm to ECE, chances are you’re already doing it. Recognizing that is the first step in growing and sustaining the farm to ECE movement.