Farm to Early Care and Education: Toward a Shared Language
Farm to early care and education (farm to ECE) is a group of strategies and activities that increase access to healthy local foods, gardening opportunities, and education about food, nutrition, and agriculture.
Kids and families benefit, farmers benefit, and communities benefit when early care and education sites use farm to ECE. Farm to ECE is sometimes called “farm to preschool” or “farm to childcare.”
Farm to ECE happens where early care and education and food systems meet. Although we are often working towards the same goals, it can be difficult for food systems and early care and education to communicate because there is not a shared language.
We can’t fully achieve farm to ECE goals without understanding both perspectives. We have shared values and interests as both spheres work to raise healthy, educated children in thriving local communities.
We hope this blog begins a conversation between early care and education providers and food systems practitioners so that we can develop a shared language and fuller understanding of the common purpose we are working towards.
Why farm to ECE matters to early care and education providers
About 12 million children under the age of five are cared for outside of the home.1
It’s critical that early care and education programs provide quality food and learning environments for these young children. Farm to ECE is one approach that ECE programs take to support the children and families they serve.
Early care and education providers use farm to ECE in order to teach children about where food comes from and to improve children’s health.2
Like food systems workers, early care and education programs are governed by regulations and standards. Programs may integrate farm to ECE as a strategy to help them meet meal pattern requirements, improve their quality ratings, and align with early learning standards.3
One reason that farm to ECE is appealing is that it can be used in any type of early care and education setting. ECE settings vary widely, but they typically fall into one of two broad categories: center-based or home-based settings.4
Regardless of setting, farm to ECE can enhance the quality of the learning environment because it offers a wide array of experiential learning opportunities. Research shows that experiential learning can support children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development.5
Early childhood educators may integrate farm to ECE into their classrooms to provide new experiential learning activities. Sometimes, early care and education providers use farm to ECE learning activities without even realizing it! Farm field trips, taste tests, and seed germination are commonly used to teach children about where food comes from and how it nourishes their bodies and minds.
Early care and education providers know better than anyone the importance of a child’s earliest years. Children’s preferences and willingness to try new foods develop when they are very young.6 This can set the stage for healthy eating for the rest of their lives.
When children taste and grow new foods, they often share their excitement at home with their families. Because of this, early childhood educators use farm to ECE to engage families in their programs.7 Sending recipes or garden transplants home with children is a fun way to encourage parents and family members to learn about healthy eating and how food grows.
At its core, farm to ECE matters to ECE providers because the children, families, and communities they serve gain access to high quality, fresh food that helps them learn and grow.
Why farm to ECE matters to food systems practitioners
Healthy food access is one of the values that is foundational to the work of food systems practitioners. Farm to ECE is an excellent opportunity for food systems practitioners to develop strategies to increase healthy food access and consumption among the youngest eaters.
Food systems practitioners are also interested in farm to ECE because it helps them better understand a community’s interest in local food. “Local” is defined independently by each early care and education site. Depending on the site, “local” could refer to food sourced within the same city, within 100 miles, within the same state, or within an even larger geographic region.
In the 2018 National Farm to Early Care and Education Survey, early care and education sites were asked about their local food purchasing practices.
Of the 717 ECE sites purchasing local foods, about one third purchase directly from farmers markets. About 30% of early care and education sites source food from on-site or community gardens and 21% source from individual farmers or producers. Many ECE sites also procure local foods from distributors, grocery stores or retail outlets, and food processors or manufacturers.8
In Michigan, opportunities to buy local are abundant. There are almost 50,000 farms and about 300 farmers markets in the state.9, 10 As of April 2020, there are at least nine food hubs in Michigan that an ECE site could purchase food from.11
Food systems practitioners recognize that farm to ECE is a great market for local producers. Farmers, ranchers, fishers, food processors, distributors, and other food producers can add a new stream of income by selling to ECE sites.
Additionally, increased demand for local food can stimulate the local economy and create more food systems jobs.
Farm to ECE is aligned with farm to school, which has proven benefits for the whole community.12 For example, school gardens and composting programs through ECE sites can be places where communities gather and access important resources.
Food systems practitioners understand that farm to ECE offers an exceptional opportunity to support children, farmers, and local communities.
Overcoming barriers and creating a shared language
Early care and education providers and food systems practitioners have many shared values and goals. Strengthening our communication will help us overcome systemic barriers and achieve our common purpose.
For instance, many early care and education sites face barriers when sourcing local foods for their meal programs. Frequently identified barriers include:
- Price of local items
- Seasonality of fruits and vegetables
- Reliability of product supply
- Finding suppliers and farmers to provide local food
- Knowing how to order local items13
Navigating these barriers is much easier when we have a common understanding to guide us. When food systems practitioners know more about what ECE sites need regarding food procurement - including quantities, delivery and storage, and regulations - they will be better able to connect them with the right food sources. When early care and education providers know more about where to buy local food and how to implement farm to ECE in their classrooms and meal programs, they are able to do so much more seamlessly.
As early care and education providers and food producers work together in the Michigan Farm to ECE Network, there are some steps we can take to create a shared language for farm to ECE. Using a shared language can help us meet common objectives and identify our shared purpose.14, 15
Some recommended action steps include:
- Make your language visible. Create a list of terms and acronyms used in your organization or field and make them available for everyone.
- This will help address some of the barriers noted above. ECE programs might explain different food programs they are participating in and what they are required to purchase. Food systems practitioners could describe how much product a provider might need to order and considerations for storage and food safety.
- Recognize that each individual comes with a unique and important set of skills, perspectives, and knowledge.
- Encourage communication between and among stakeholders to learn from different perspectives.
- Understand that what makes sense to one person, organization, or field may not make sense to another. Ask for an explanation in a different way and offer explanations using different words or examples. Patience and empathy are key.
- Make space for new perspectives as the work moves forward.
- Workshop a shared language together, sharing meeting norms, guidelines, and a purpose each time.
- Think about how the language will be used, such as in publications for ECE providers or food producers. How will the language serve its ultimate purpose?
Early care and education providers and food systems practitioners can work toward a shared language to make it easier to help children, families, farmers, and communities benefit from farm to early care and education.
The strategies and activities that increase access to healthy local foods, gardening opportunities, and education about food, nutrition, and agriculture must be part of a shared vision. We can achieve that vision by working together to create tangible goals, share responsibility, and meet as part of a network, such as the Michigan Farm to ECE Network.
Our hope is that as we continue to develop our network, we can find opportunities big and small to build a shared language and vision into our work.
Notes and References
- Child Care Aware. (2019). The U.S. and the high price of child care. https://www.childcareaware.org/our-issues/research/the-us-and-the-high-price-of-child-care-2019/
- Shedd, M.K., Stephens, L., Matts, C., & Laney, J. (2018). Results from the 2018 National Farm to Early Care and Education Survey. National Farm to School Network and MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.http://www.farmtoschool.org/resources-main/2018-national-farm-to-early-care-and-education-survey
- National Farm to School Network. (2017). A roadmap for farm to early care and education: A guide to understanding farm to school opportunities in early care and education settings. http://www.farmtoschool.org/resources-main/a-roadmap-for-farm-to-early-care-and-education
- Center-based care can include preschools (state- or privately-funded), private child care programs, Head Start/Early Head Start, and programs in K–12 school districts. Child care centers may be either non-profit or for-profit, with either public or private funding. Home-based care or family child care usually occurs in private homes, and can include care from relatives and non-relatives.
- Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall.
- De Cosmi, V., Scaglioni, S., & Agostoni, C. (2017). Early taste experiences and later food choices. Nutrients, 9(2), 107. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9020107
- Shedd, M.K., Stephens, L., Matts, C., & Laney, J.
- USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. (2019). 2017 Census of Agriculture. www.nass.usda.gov/AgCensus
- Michigan Farmers Market Association. (n.d.). About us. http://mifma.org/aboutus/
- USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. (2020). Local food directories: Food hub directory. https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/foodhubs
- National Farm to School Network. (2017). Benefits of farm to school. http://www.farmtoschool.org/resources-main/the-benefits-of-farm-to-school
- Shedd, M.K., Stephens, L., Matts, C., & Laney, J.
- Thomas, J., & McDonagh, D. (2013). Shared language: Towards more effective communication. The Australasian Medical Journal, 6(1), 46–54. https://doi.org/10.4066/AMJ.2013.1596
- Rand, M. (2019). Adopting a shared language drives business value. Business Relationship Management Institute. https://brm.institute/shared-language-drives-value/