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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has supported Farm to School and Farm to Early Care efforts in Minnesota for over a decade and for much of this time has partnered with the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). In this context, Farm to Early Care consists of three main principles:

  • Serving locally grown foods in early care meals and snacks
  • Offering food and farming-related educational activities for children
  • Organizing food and farming-related family engagement activities

Farm to Early Care represents one concrete way to support implementation of agroecological principles locally. Farm to Early Care ties directly to the agroecological principles of promoting a circular economy, working to connect producers and consumers, and supporting local producers.

HAFA and IATP have worked together since 2014, when we piloted the first Farm to Head Start program in Minnesota, partnering with Community Action Head Start in St. Paul. This initiative included serving meals at Head Start programs with a wide variety produce grown locally and sustainably by HAFA, including culturally reflective veggies that can be harder to source. The model also developed a new curriculum to teach kids about the food they were eating and organized field trips for kids, families and Head Start staff to HAFA’s farm. More recently, to support home-based providers, HAFA and IATP launched a Farm to In-Home Early Care initiative on the east side of St. Paul in 2019. Though impacted by the sudden upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative is connecting a cohort of Hmong early care providers and the children they care for with fresh healthy vegetables from HAFA’s farm, in the form of weekly Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes. These boxes include culturally relevant foods, which can help to enrich connections among and within communities. Together with IATP, this program provides resources to support providers’ long-term ability to maintain their Farm to Early Care activities and lay the groundwork of a scalable model that continues to grow.

A pilot based on partnership

This pilot has only been possible due to HAFA’s long-standing efforts. HAFA is a membership-based nonprofit that works with over 100 Hmong farmers in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and was formed in 2011 by a group of Hmong American farming families. Hmong farmers continue to be disadvantaged when accessing farmland, new markets (beyond the farmers markets), capital, credit, research and training programs compared to white vegetable, fruit and flower growers. HAFA’s mission is to advance the economic prosperity of their farmers through policy and systems change, community engagement and advocacy, and individual capacity building so that their farmers can build skills, as well as intergenerational and community wealth.

As part of an integrated approach to community wealth building, HAFA manages a 155-acre farm in Dakota County where member families can lease land, hone their business and agricultural practices, and sell produce through the HAFA Food Hub. The typical HAFA farmer is someone who has been farming for over 20 years on less than 10 acres of land and resides in the Twin Cities but farms in Washington or Dakota County. Most HAFA farmers grow a variety of vegetables and flowers for the local farmers markets.

Working with HAFA allows farmers to expand the markets for their products. The HAFA Food Hub aggregates and sells members’ produce through CSA shares, farm to school sales, retail and other institutional sale.

Through collective farm business development, education and advocacy, HAFA is building paths to wealth creation, not just income generation, toward a sustainable, fair food economy for all. They believe that true equity requires system-level change and only occurs when people recognize each other, align their shared values and act in community-driven solidarity. They regularly partner with other organizations, sharing information, resources and organizing together to advocate for changes to the local food economy and promote equity for all Hmong farmers and the BIPOC community.

Together, HAFA and IATP envision building vibrant community-based food systems that give all people access to sufficient, safe, culturally appropriate and nutritious food while also developing local food supply chains that will allow small- to mid-scale farmers to access a variety of new markets. We envision decentralized, local food systems that are accountable to, and largely controlled by, the community members who depend on them, where food is produced and distributed in a manner that builds equity, justice, and resiliency in policy and practice.

Pilot lessons

Most of this pilot program has taken place during the pandemic, involving a wide variety of unforeseen upheavals. These events highlighted how well-suited a CSA program for early care providers can be in an uncertain environment. The short supply chain meant fresh vegetables remained accessible when other supply chains were disrupted, and the boxes and activities have provided support to providers in a critical time.

“Receiving a box of fresh produce weekly helps me tremendously and it provides me an array of produce to choose from for the meals. The fresh lemongrass received has made my children’s favorite dish, chicken and herb soup, more flavorful and soothing.” — MayLee Yang, participating provider

“Participating in the Farm to In-home Daycare program reduces the time I need to purchase produce and helps me with meal preparation in advance. It also gives me the opportunity to spark conversations with my children and incorporate them in a learning curriculum.” — Anonymous participating provider

Early care providers have also learned about enrolling in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which provides reimbursements to providers for meals they serve. The federal government recently enhanced the funding available to providers, which should help them to continue to serve fresh fruits and vegetables even as food costs have skyrocketed. However, there are still barriers to enrollment. Providers reported challenges with the administration of the program and anxiety surrounding the regulatory visits for the program.  These findings point to the continued need for relationship building, reduction in administrative burden and engagement opportunities to boost CACFP enrollment. We have long-standing relationships with staff at the Minnesota Department of Education and food program sponsoring organizations and plan to work with that program to find new ways to create a more equitable system for immigrant providers like those in our cohort.

Moving forward

The work with providers is ongoing, and HAFA and IATP are partnering to create new resources and tools related to this project. Creating a culturally appropriate meal plan with recipes and activities designed specifically for the in-home context will incorporate the experience and perspectives of providers who have been participating in this project. These resources will continue to evolve to serve the needs of an ever-wider range of providers interested in healthy food that works for their communities and celebrates their food traditions. We look forward to continuing to work together as part of a wider movement to support agroecological principles of connection and responsiveness to community needs.