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2023 Survey of Minnesota Early Care Providers

kid cutting green beans

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Farm to Early Care initiatives connect young children with nutritious, locally grown foods and support farmers in their communities through:

  • Gardening, including indoor, outdoor and container gardening.
  • Food and farming education, including cooking and agriculture education, field trips to farms or farmers markets, imaginary play, food and farm-related books, and more.
  • Serving local food in meals, snacks or taste tests.

The Minnesota Farm to Early Care Network has existed in some form since 2014. Some of the key goals of the group have included coordination of statewide partners and promotion of Farm to Early Care resources and support. The Minnesota Farm to Early Care Network was selected to participate in the 2019 Association of State Public Health Nutritionists (ASPHN) Farm to Early Care “Mini CoIIN” cohort and then to be part of ASPHN’s Farm to Early Care and Education Implementation Grant (FIG) from 2020-2023, with the goal of advancing Farm to Early Care in Minnesota. This funding allowed the Network to administer a small number of mini grants, create and promote a website and newsletter, among other efforts. Complementary to these efforts, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) identified a priority of data collection to better understand the level of Farm to Early Care activities, barriers and opportunities in Minnesota, leading to MDH’s support of the development, administration and analysis of the first statewide Farm to Early Care survey.  

About this survey

In the summer of 2023, the Minnesota Farm to Early Care Network conducted the first-ever statewide survey of early care providers to better understand Farm to Early Care activities in Minnesota, as well as the benefits and challenges related to this work, to help inform future efforts.

This survey was created in collaboration with state agency staff and administered by the University of Minnesota Extension and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). The survey was promoted through the Farm to Early Care listserv and Facebook group, through state departments, including the Minnesota Department of Education’s (MDE) newsletters, sponsoring organizations and other partners.  The survey data was collected in the summer of 2023. Further conversations were conducted in August 2023 with engaged early care providers to collect additional detail and feedback regarding survey results and provider experiences.  

This report provides a summary of findings, as well as key takeaways and opportunities for further support and expansion of Farm to Early Care efforts in Minnesota. Throughout the report, figures are based on the number of respondents to each question.  

We encouraged early care providers from all settings to respond to our survey and received responses from 301 early cares, including licensed and unlicensed home-based early care providers, childcare centers, preschools and Head Starts. Eighty three percent of respondents identified as home-based early care providers, 13% as centers, 2.2% as Head Starts and 1.8% as unlicensed early care providers. Respondents care for nearly 7,500 children, ranging in age from newborn to school-age children.

Key Highlights

  • Respondents implemented activities reflecting all three components of Farm to Early Care, with the most popular activities being gardening, serving locally grown food, and educating children about food and farming.  
  • The biggest benefits early care providers see from implementing the Farm to Early Care model are teaching children about where food comes from and how it is grown, giving hands-on learning opportunities and encouraging children to try a variety of foods. 
  • The largest barriers to providers implementing Farm to Early Care are lack of funding, lack of time and lack of gardening space/materials. 
  • The majority (87%) of respondents have served local foods from a variety of sources, including purchased from farmers markets, grocery stores and direct from farmers or grown in their own gardens. Nearly half (43%) of respondents reported serving local items once or twice per week during Minnesota’s growing season, with vegetables and fruits as the most popular local items. Respondents’ definitions of “local” varied: 34% looked within a certain distance of their own community, 29% looked for local products grown or raised in their immediate community and 33% looked for items grown in Minnesota.  
  • The most popular methods of engaging kids were reading books about food and farming, involving children in cooking and food preparation, and planting activities.
  • 70% of respondents have gardened in the past two years. Most sites reported growing seasonal items outdoors, but some sites also reported indoor growing and growing fruit trees and other perennials.
  • Garden produce was served primarily in meals and snacks, but many sites also used garden produce in taste tests and/or sent it home with children to share with families.
  • The top type of support early care providers requested was more funding and opportunities for grants. Other support desired included educational activities, food preparation resources/recipes and gardening information.  

Survey Questions and Responses

Meal and Snack Service

  • Most respondents prepare their own meals and snacks for children in their care.  


  • What type of meal and snack service do you use? (respondents could check all that apply)  
    We make our own meals and/or snacks: 86.7%; We get meals and/or snacks from a catering company: 7.0%; Families/guardians supply meals and/or snacks: 6.3%; The local school district supplies meals and/or snacks: 8.0%; Other: 3.0%
  • Eighty one percent of respondents participate in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which provides a set amount of reimbursement for each meal served. CACFP reimbursable meals must follow federal meal pattern guidelines on required meal components, portion sizes and limits on sugar, salt, fat, etc. Serving local products is an official best practice for CACFP meals, though not a requirement. Eighty seven percent of respondents have served a local product before. 

Experience with Farm to Early Care  

We found that respondents were implementing all three components of Farm to Early Care, with the most popular activities reported being gardening, serving locally grown food, and educating children about food and farming.  

3 image collage: image of child gardening; image of child eating a plate of local foods; image of IATP's Erin McKee reading a book about vegetables to a group of early care children.

  • Which of these activities has your program done in the past two years? (Respondents could select all that apply.) 

    Gardening: growing herbs, fruits, or vegetables, indoors or outside 210 (70%)  Served locally grown food in meals, snacks or taste tests 201 (67%)  Educated children about locally grown food, how food grows and/or where it comes from 201 (67%)  Held taste tests and/or cooking demonstrations of locally produced or garden-grown foods 65 (22%  Conducted field trips to farms, gardens and/or farmers markets 63 (21%)  Facilitated children’s families’ access to locally grown foods at home 48 (16%)  Hosted a special event or day related to food and farms 39 (13%)  Celebrated National Farm to School Month in October 29 (10%)  Hosted a farmer or chef visit 23 (8%)  Hosted Farm to Early Care-related community events (including parents) 10 (3%) 

  • Sixteen percent of all respondents had not yet tried any Farm to Early Care activities. Of those, 81% (38 respondents, 13% of the total) are interested in starting Farm to Early Care in the future, while 19% (9 respondents, 3% of the total) are not interested in starting Farm to Early Care in the future.  
    Pie chart: 235 Have tried Farm to Early Care activities; 38 Interested in trying Farm to Early Care; 9 Not interested in trying Farm to Early Care


  • What do you see as the most important benefits of doing Farm to Early Care activities? (Respondents could select up to three.)  
    Teaching children about where food comes from and how it is grown 230 (79.86%)  Giving hands-on learning opportunities 152 (52.78%)  Encouraging children to try a variety of foods 150 (52.08%)    Serving children fresher or higher-quality food 94 (32.64%)  Expanding children's taste preferences 75 (26.04%)  Improving children's health 70 (24.31%)  Supporting the local economy 26 (9.03%)  Building stronger community connections and relationships 23 (7.99%)  Engaging families in farm or food education 16 (5.56%)
  • What are the top barriers your program has faced in doing Farm to Early Care activities? (Respondents could select up to three.) 
    Lack of funding 170 (63%)  Lack of time 121 (45%)    Lack of gardening space/materials 101 (37%)    Difficulty finding/purchasing local foods 49 (18%)  Lack of gardening knowledge 50 (18%)  Lack of easy-to-use food and farming educational resources 48 (18%)  Lack of equipment or supplies to prepare food 30 (11%)  Lack of interest or support 26 (10%)    Lack of control (e.g., families/guardians provide meals, catered meals) 19 (7%)

Serving Locally Grown Foods

We asked specifically about serving locally grown foods in meals and snacks through connecting with farmers, local food purchasing and using garden-grown produce. “Local” may be defined as grown or raised within a certain distance of an early care provider’s site, within their region, within the state, etc. Providers responded to questions based on their own understanding or definition of local. 
3 maps of Minnesota highlighted to show different definitions of local: radius around central location, whole state, surrounding states

  • How do you define “local” food? 
    Pie chart: Grown/raised in my immediate community  86 (29%)  Grown/raised within a certain distance radius (25 miles/250 miles, etc.) 101 (34%)  Grown/raised in Minnesota  100 (33%)  Grown/raised in Minnesota or neighboring states 16 (5%)  I don’t know/I don’t have a definition 10 (3%)  Other (please explain)  3 (1%)


  • Have you ever served locally produced or garden-grown products at your site? 
    Yes 87% (244)  No 13% (36)  Prefer not to answer 0% (1) 


  • Where have you sourced locally grown or raised food? (Respondents could select all that apply.) 
    Your own garden, community garden or a family/teacher’s garden 188 (77%)    Farmers market 166 (68%)  Grocery store (selected items identified as grown/raised locally) 112 (46%)  Individual farm, ranch, orchard, etc.  98 (40%)  Community Supported Agriculture (CSA food box share) 28 (11%)  Distributor (company that provides a wide range of items, purchase identified local items, e.g., Sysco, Reinhart/Performance Foodservice, Upper Lakes Foods) 10 (4%)  Local “food hub” (organization that gathers local produce from multiple producers to sell to customers, e.g., Sprout, the Good Acre) 10 (4%)  Catered meals (included items grown/raised locally) 4 (2%)  Online (selecting items identified as grown/raised locally) 5 (2%) 


  • What estimated percentage of your overall food budget is spent on local foods?
    Less than 5%: 34%; 5-10%: 28%; 11% or more: 23%; Not sure: 15%


  • During Minnesota’s growing season (approximately May-October), how often do your program’s meals and/or snacks include at least one locally grown food item?
    More than three times per week  87 (36%)  1-2 times each week  103 (43%)  Once per month   34 (14%)  Less than once per month  18 (7%) 
  • What locally grown items do you get and use most? (Respondents ranked from most used to least used)
    Vegetables  235 (97%)  Fruit 201 (83%)  Protein (e.g., meat, tofu, eggs, etc.) 87 (36%)  Dairy 38 (16%)  Other  5 (2%) 

Food and Farming Education

Food and farming education includes many kinds of activities dedicated to learning about food or farming, such as: reading books, creative play, cooking/food preparation, taste tests, field trips to farms/gardens/farmers markets, visits from farmers/food makers, food/agriculture/farming curriculum, planting activities, caring for farm animals, or other activities related to how food is grown/raised and harvested.

  • Which food and farming education activities has your program done? 
    Reading books about food and/or farming: 87%; Involving children in cooking/food preparation: 69%; Planting activities: 65%; Dramatic play involving food and/or farming: 62%; Taste tests: 60%; Specific activities about food/agriculture/farming: 46%; Field trips to farms/gardens/farmers markets: 20%; Caring for farm animals: 14%; Visits from farmers/food makers: 6%
  • Providers were most likely to have read books about food and farming, involved children in cooking and food preparation, and done planting activities.


  • Which types of gardens does your program have? 
    Outdoor growing - in-ground or raised bed gardens: 74%; Indoor growing - starting seeds or growing hers: 30%; Fruit trees and/or bushes: 28%; Do not have a gardening program: 20%
  • Growing seasonal items outdoors was by far the most popular type of gardening, but some sites reported indoor growing and growing fruit trees and other perennials as well. (Sites could indicate more than one type of growing setting.)


  • What do you do with produce grown in the garden? 
    Use it in meals/snacks: 88%; Use it in taste tests: 54%; Send it home with children/families: 42%
  • Most sites indicated using garden produce in meals and snacks, but many sites also used garden produce in taste tests and/or sent it home with children to share with families.  


Farm to Early Care Support   

  • What type of Farm to Early Care resources would be helpful? (Respondents could select all that apply.) 
    More funding/opportunities for grants: 73%; Educational activities and lesson plans: 60%; Food preparation resources: 41%; Gardening information: 38%; Guides to finding and purchasing local foods: 37%; A mentor or group I can go to for guidance: 19%; Food safety information: 14%
  • The most helpful resource indicated by providers was more funding and opportunities for grants, followed by educational activities, food preparation resources/recipes and gardening information.  


  • What trainings would be most helpful in expanding Farm to Early Care activities at your program? (Respondents could select all that apply.)  
    Incorporating food and farming activities: 53%; Gardening: 45%; How to prepare local items: 22%; N/A: 15%
  • Support for doing Farm to Early Care activities on food and farming was the most desired topic, followed by gardening. Several respondents indicated all of these would be helpful.  
  • What types of trainings would you be most interested in? 
    Virtual self-paced trainings: 59%; In-person: 22%; Virtual live trainings: 19%
  • Survey respondents were most interested in virtual self-paced Farm to Early Care trainings. This points to an opportunity for support organizations to consider opportunities to provide self-paced trainings, as most trainings currently offered are live trainings, either in person or online. However, in follow-up conversations, several providers indicated a preference for in-person or virtual live trainings. Live trainings allow providers to get ideas and learn directly from other providers, which can be a richer experience. These differing responses highlight the need for training in a variety of formats.  


Key Supports Needed:

Provider conversations reiterated the desire for educational activities about food and farming, as well as gardening information. Providers noted the benefit of simple-to-use activities and trainings that give them a “take home” idea that is simple to execute with minimal additional resources after the training. Survey responses and provider conversations both indicate the need to further support training efforts in Farm to Early Care, ideally through a variety of methods.  

Providers in follow-up conversations also highlighted the fragmented nature of information and the desire for a one-stop shop to find activities, gardening resources, recipes, etc. (Provider conversation, August 16, 2023.) A desire for facilitated connections regarding Farm to Early Care concepts was also noted, particularly for gardening. One respondent noted a desire for “a mentoring program or a connection program” to connect with other providers on these topics one on one.  


Additional Resources:


Farm to Early Care is good for kids!

Children who participate in Farm to Early Care initiatives encounter a wide variety of locally grown and raised foods, show increased willingness to try new foods, and eat more servings and more diverse kinds of fruits and vegetables compared to children who do not participate in Farm to Early Care. These healthy habits are developed during a key window of childhood when taste preferences are being set that will carry forward for the rest of their lives, making it an effective prevention strategy for obesity and diet-related disease. Through hands-on classroom activities, children also develop a sense of “food literacy” and deepen their understanding of agriculture, healthy eating, local foods and seasonality. Additionally, introducing local foods to very young children lays the groundwork for Farm to School activities in K-12 settings. Through Farm to Early Care activities, children can act as agents of change for families and teachers, inspiring healthier eating habits outside the classroom.

Farm to Early Care is good for farmers!

Farm to Early Care initiatives open up new markets for farmers to sell their products. Institutions like early care settings can provide a stable and predictable source of income for local food producers, and farmers who sell to early care settings can potentially plan ahead and sell larger amounts at once than they can at a farmers market. Experience selling to early care settings builds skills that support selling to additional wholesale markets, helping to diversify farmers’ businesses and grow their bottom line.

Farm to Early Care is good for communities!

In addition to farmers, other sectors of the local food economy, such as processors and caterers, also can increase their businesses. Investing dollars locally creates a multiplier effect — in fact, a study from Oregon found that every dollar spent on Farm to School and Early Care generates an additional $2.16 in local economic activity. Farm to Early Care initiatives are taking off across the spectrum of child care settings, from family child care providers, to Head Start Programs, to centerbased care. They naturally align with child development best practices by engaging children in experiential learning and are a complementary strategy to meet already existing requirements from licensing, child nutrition programs and quality improvement standards. These initiatives are flexible, and early care providers can choose unique activities based on the goals and needs of their community. Ultimately, Farm to Early Care activities can transform systems to be more resilient by engaging families and community members, strengthening local economies by investing in local growers and other food-related businesses and supporting farmers by facilitating access to new markets.

Janssen Hang unpacks CSA box with Early Care children

HAFA's Janssen Hang delivers a CSA box to an in-home early care provider in summer 2022.


The authors would like to thank Minnesota early care providers for their support of our evaluation efforts, including responding to our statewide survey and participating in focus group conversations to share deeper insights. Your perspective is essential to understanding the landscape of Farm to Early Care in our state and planning for the best ways to support you.   
Thank you to our partners from the MN Farm to Early Care Network and Farm to School Leadership Team for their ongoing collaboration and partnership. We are grateful and proud to be part of this community of dedicated partners working to support and grow Farm to Early Care and Farm to School throughout Minnesota.  

This evaluation work was conducted through funding from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Office of Statewide Health Improvement Initiatives (OSHII) under its CDC State Physical Activity and Nutrition Program (SPAN) grant. 

For more information about Farm to Early Care in Minnesota, including resources for early care providers, please see MN’s Farm to Early Care website (maintained by IATP):  

Download a PDF of this report.