“We’ve got a Larry!” I peel back bristly leaves to show a curious troop of grade schoolers a plump baby cucumber. It’s the first to grow in the Kalkaska childcare center’s new Little Learners Garden.
This discovery inspires the kids to look closer at all the edible plants springing from the revitalized beds—tomatoes, watermelons, turnips, chard, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, pole beans—prompting lots of “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” I witness another food memory forged when one of the girls wants to try the garden’s single ripe sungold cherry tomato, shining like a beacon from within the vines.
“This is my daughter,” says Kristin Andrews, owner and operator of Blue Fish Early Learning Center. Kristin drops the little fruit in her daughter Kennedi’s hand. “Kennedi loves tomatoes and eats them all the time, but we’ve never tried orange ones. These are supposed to be sweeter, right?”
Kennedi grins as if she had just won a prize, but I notice as she bites into the juicy sungold that it’s not quite the same treat that she’s used to. Kristin and I laugh as the girl’s face sours.
“That’s alright, you don’t have to like it,” I say, so all the kids can hear. “The important thing is that you tried it!”
With help from a master gardener, plants flourish, providing nutrient-dense food, lessons about nature, and possibly the basis for lifelong healthy diets.
As I continue working on the raised beds this Friday in June, I listen to rambling stories from five-year-olds who tell me about their mom’s garden at home, field run-on questions from even younger children, and work around lingering 10- and 11-year-olds who want to help. I leave way later than I had planned, but I drive all the way back to Petoskey with a smile on my face.
Those interactions are why working with early childcare centers is essential. What’s also important is the notable confidence boost I saw in Kristin that afternoon as she was talking to the kids about growing veggies.
We’ve seen huge advances in expanding Farm to Early Childhood Education (ECE) initiatives throughout Michigan and across the country. The MSU Center for Regional Food Systems and National Farm to School Network just released a new report proving that Farm to ECE programs are effective in improving education, community health, and local farm economies. But despite the movement’s growth in recent years, there’s still a lot of work to do to support ECE providers. Staff like Kristin are often stretched too thin and are hesitant about even thinking of adding anything else to their plate. In addition to successes, the report also lists the many challenges facing providers who want to implement Farm to ECE programs, including:
- Lack of kitchen equipment to process/prepare local foods
- Lack of skilled/trained staff to prepare local foods
- Limited onsite storage
- Lack of outdoor space
- Limited access to appropriate curriculum or lesson plans
- Limited staff knowledge about nutrition education, gardening, or local foods
- Limited staff time to develop and implement lessons
- Limited funding for supplies
These are the exact challenges Kristin described when she applied for Building Resilient Communities, Groundwork’s new capacity-building program.
The new refrigerator helps the center store more family meals from Father Fred as well as fresh fruits and veggies from the garden.
“Our center opened right before the pandemic with a licensed capacity of 48. We now have a licensed capacity of 123 and have waiting lists up to at least a year,” Kristin says. “We service families that are considered at-risk: almost 33 percent of our children in care are at a Free or Reduced Lunch rate. We need equipment and support to provide families with healthy choices.”
The Building Resilient Communities (BRC) pilot launched in 2021, aiming to address similar infrastructure and resource-related roadblocks that both providers and producers face in the Northwest Lower Michigan food system. With $2,000 stipends and project experience, Groundwork staff collaborate with community-focused sites like Blue Fish to grow their capacit