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Child care providers and early care settings often have a variety of reasons for participating in Farm to Early Care activities. For Haley Anderson, Nutrition Services Coordinator at Reach Up Head Start in St. Cloud, developing personal relationships with local fruit and vegetable growers was a primary motivator. It was important to Haley not only to know where the food served on her menu was coming from, but to know the names and the faces of the people growing it. Through partnerships with four Central Minnesota farmers, Haley’s dedication to purchasing local foods also reaped benefits that she didn’t expect.

In its simplest form, Farm to Early Care is about connecting very young children with locally grown foods. In preparing to launch her center’s Farm to Head Start program, Haley first identified four local family farmers (located within a 30 mile radius of Reach Up) to feature their produce in the Reach Up menu. Then, Haley and her foodservice team worked with IATP to incorporate six highlighted fruits and vegetables into children’s meals and snacks throughout the late summer and fall of 2016. The highlighted foods were selected based on seasonal availability, with items like green beans featured in September, apples in October and winter squash in November. The kitchen staff prepared each item from scratch, incorporating each local item into meals and snacks twice a week for two weeks. They made a special effort to prepare each food in a variety of different ways, making sure children were able to experience different flavor profiles of those foods. Reach Up teachers were also trained on IATP’s Farm to Head Start curriculum, and used classroom activities (like farm-related songs and stories) to familiarize children with new food items outside of a mealtime setting.

Farm to Early Care programs can create a ripple effect of benefits for local communities. They connect families, farmers, early education settings and other institutions on a local, regional and even national level. During National Farm to School month in October, Reach Up participated in the Great Apple Crunch, an event celebrating the famous autumn fruit. On a specific date and time, Reach Up students bit into local apples along with over 250,000 other “crunchers” from 547 schools and early care settings across Minnesota1. Farm to Head Start-related family engagement activities also created continuity between school and home environments. According to Reach Up’s Education Coordinators, an October farm and pumpkin patch tour (hosted by Stoney Brook Farm in Foley, MN) was the most popular family engagement event of the year! And, by the end of the program, Haley discovered that purchasing seasonal produce from growers in her area actually cost less money than purchasing the very same items through a large food distributor.

Today, Haley and her staff are busy planning for the launch of their second Farm to Head Start program this August. They are looking forward to deepening the relationships with growers that began last year (although this year, Haley plans to work with a local food hub to obtain seasonal produce from one centralized location), and continuing to introduce young children to the variety of central Minnesota’s fruits and vegetables.