MSU Extension seeking childcare providers to participate in innovative CSA, nutrition program

By connecting caregivers to community farmers, Growing Healthy Eaters will increase access to local produce, educate providers about nutrition and teach children about gardening and agriculture.

A caregiver helping a young girl try fresh produce.
Photo: iStock.

When it comes to developing young children’s eating habits, childcare providers can be among the biggest influences. After all, these caregivers provide many, if not most, of the meals and snacks a child eats in their day.

Michigan State University Extension’s new Growing Healthy Eaters program — funded by an Allen Foundation grant — aims to help these providers serve healthy foods while teaching kids about community agriculture and gardening. At the heart of this program is the concept of “farm to early childhood education,” or farm to ECE.

“Farm to ECE has three main parts: serving more local foods in meals and snacks, gardening with the children, and teaching children about where food comes from,” said Dawn Earnesty, an MSU Extension community nutrition evaluation specialist and program lead.

MSU Extension is seeking to recruit 100 childcare home providers who are located in CACFP area eligible locations throughout Michigan. Recruitment will be open through early 2023, until the CSA season starts or when all 100 provider slots are filled. 

By participating in the Growing Healthy Eaters program, providers will receive:

  • Licensure continuing education hours through the MI Registry system.
  • Free gardening and/or food procurement supplies, recipes, tip sheets and samples.
  • A subscription to community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes of local produce, offered for six months at a sliding scale cost based on income (distribution will begin in May 2023 and last for a typical season of 20 to 22 weeks, although this may vary depending on individual CSA arrangements).
  • Free, evidence-based nutrition education and support in the areas of food resource management and procuring local, farm-fresh food for their childcare businesses.

Michelle Wambold, an Alcona County childcare provider who signed up for the program, is excited to enhance the menus she serves to her children while supporting local food producers.

“I am always looking for ways to improve my family daycare home,” Wambold said. "I also strive to find new or different foods or different ways to prepare foods to make it and keep it interesting for my daycare kids.”

Once the group of 100 providers is assembled, they will be matched with MSU Extension instructors in their respective counties for a series of free, virtual nutrition educational sessions. Providers will also participate in discussions with MSU Extension staff and farmers to ensure the produce they receive through their CSA subscriptions is culturally appropriate.

“Part of this project is acknowledging and respecting the differences in each county, each provider and each farmer,” said Earnesty. “Some providers are in food deserts or places where produce isn’t accessible. Others aren’t aware of the local foods available to them, or they haven’t created those relationships with farmers yet. That’s where this program can fill in the gaps.”

The goal of this work doesn’t stop at growing healthy eaters, though. MSU Extension hopes to grow the program itself, eventually serving as a replicable model for other Michigan counties and beyond.

“The hope is to build strong relationships between ECE homes and local agriculture producers,” said Earnesty. “When we strengthen the connection between ECE and local food systems, we can improve access to healthy foods for all children.”

How to participate

If you are a childcare provider in one of the 19 eligible counties and would like to sign up for the Growing Healthy Eaters program, please fill out the participation form at bit.ly/growinghealthy.

If you are a farmer in one of the 19 counties and are interested in participating, you may also fill out this participation form, or contact MSU Extension educator Garrett Ziegler at zieglerg@msu.edu. Priority is being given to women and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) farmers.

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