Farm to Preschool for All Colorado Kids—and For Their Futures

Farm to Preschool

by Jim Dyer, Healthy Community Food Systems

Editor’s note: LiveWell Colorado & Healthy Community Food Systems are the co-state leads for the National Farm to School Network in Colorado.

The results are in.  Data from a recent survey by the National Farm to School Network shows impressive activity across the country in getting our youngest children eating local foods, learning about real whole foods, and gardening.  It is a no-brainer: extending the established K-12 Farm to School program to younger kids—and seeing these kids get the high-quality food and real-life experiences with it—just makes sense.

The data is very encouraging in terms of numbers of child care and education sites featuring these activities.  But the real significance of these findings is that it is becoming an expectation that we do our best to bring more healthy local foods and time in the garden to our youngest ones.  It is that expectation that is key and it is the essence of the Farm to School movement.  Great news indeed.

The similarities of Farm to Preschool to K-12 Farm to School are clear—the same need for healthy food and developing a good relationship to food— but even more important at these younger ages. The differences present distinct opportunities. Many preschools are open during the summer fresh produce and gardening season. Parents are typically more involved. Experiential education is the norm. Family style meals are much more feasible due to smaller enrollments. The range of sizes and summer operations open exciting new opportunities for a variety of producers. Preschools located at K-12 school sites that are involved in Farm to School are a bridge ready for use.

Farm to Preschool At Healthy Community Food Systems (HCFS), we are developing a systems approach to this work in southwestern Colorado’s La Plata County.  Farm to School for all ages needs to engage the whole community, underlying issues of low wages and inadequate public financing must be addressed, and farmers and ranchers need fair prices to keep supplying quality local products.  The success of Farm to School programs depends on a robust local food system, and these programs can be instrumental in engaging the whole community to build that system.  The focus must be as local as possible, and on community itself, for this to happen.

HCFS has focused its efforts on a few key local products. After growing fresh veggies in the preschool garden, the next-best way to get a steady stream of fresh local produce into preschools is through a Community Supported Agriculture subscription, or CSA.  So far, we have helped five preschools subscribe to CSAs for this season. We also see carrots as a key product—highly nutritious, well-accepted (especially straight from the farm with tops on—kids eat twice as many!), harvestable into October, storable into the spring, and adorable to see kids eat. We estimate it would take just 1.2 acres of land to get two servings of carrots a week to all 1,000 preschoolers in La Plata County for a full year. Other products we’re focusing on include Southwest Colorado dry beans, non-GMO whole grain cornmeal from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm, and local beef.

We also try to look to the future of our kids.  What is the point of raising smart healthy kids if they don’t have a great world to live in?  Choosing foods that are grown, processed, transported, and used as sustainably as possible can help shape that future.  We promote a Wild School Gardens approach of deeper ecological learning to ground this effort.  Kids growing foods in the garden will start to develop healthier food choices.  Kids paying attention to nature as they grow food in the garden will start to develop more sustainable food choices.

While our work is most intense in our local area, we are spreading the lessons learned, strategies developed, and connections made across all of Southwest Colorado. Our strategy is to enlist local food groups across this region to help with Farm to Preschool in whatever way they can—from simply being ready to answer questions about how to find local growers and products; to including preschools in media outreach, local food meetings, and market and distribution planning; to adding preschools to existing K-12 efforts.  With hard work, Farm to Preschool can become established across the region and the state even faster than Farm to School has for K-12.

On the state level, agencies, nonprofits, producer groups, and academia need to prioritize incorporating our youngest children into the overall Farm to School movement—without delay.  More research is needed to further demonstrate (to those who still need convincing) that good food and garden time are essential to early child development—physical, social, emotional, and academic.  Food and hunger groups should see preschoolers and their parents as central to programs addressing obesity, food access, and food justice.  Economic development and environmental groups should see Farm to Preschool as one more critical way for local food systems to advance their missions.

If statewide groups support the innovations in Farm to Preschool initiated at the local level, Colorado has an opportunity to lead the way for the well-being of our nation’s children and their futures.