Step Up To Quality Stories

How to Advance Early Childhood Education with Local, Fresh Foods

In quality early childhood education, food is an important component—from what children consume at snack time to learning about how it’s produced. Healthy eating habits start as early as infancy.

Our colleagues at the Farm to Preschool program, an initiative through the Nebraska Department of Education, work to connect early care and education settings to local food producers with the objectives of serving locally grown, healthy foods to young children, improving child nutrition and providing related educational opportunities.

We recently connected with Deb Buck, a family engagement supervisor and outreach coordinator at Educare, a provider that’s a part of Step Up to Quality in Lincoln, Nebraska, to learn more about how they’re incorporating gardening and produce into their curriculum.

How long has your center participated in this initiative?

We began in 2017, but I’ve been involved in Farm to Preschool for more than 30 years. Once I started working at Educare, I did some research and reached out to Community Crops, who at the time had a Farm to School program, to establish a garden. Our Family Engagement team really spearheaded this program.

Involvement in the initiative can span from casual to immersive. What all does Educare do?

When the Community Crops program ended, we sought a new collaboration with Nebraska Extension and Partnership for a Healthy Lincoln. Through them, we got three master gardeners that supported us in setting up the garden, coming multiple times over the first few weeks, then coming out once a week to work with our teachers.

We’ve also connected with the local Food Bank to send a box of produce to our families once a week for 12 weeks. Once that was established, we went back to Nebraska Extension and connected those partnerships to send along recipes with the produce boxes for parents to try out.

Why do you think this initiative is important, and what positive impacts have you seen?

It’s important for children to know where produce comes from and have that understanding. Also, a lot of our teachers will take children out to the garden if the child is having an off day. It’s practical, intentional work where children can care for something.

The children have really diversified what they’ll eat, too. We can grow kale and make chips or salad, which is not something they always get at home.

How does this program boost the quality of the care you provide?

In my view of quality early childhood education, children can’t learn everything in life in just a classroom. You can have a cartoon picture of a fruit, but it’s so much richer to be able to see, feel and taste it in the garden. They see the lifecycle of plants and learn how to nurture them.

Parents have had a really positive reaction to our efforts, and I do think it sets us apart from other centers. We had a spring garden workday, and one mom in particular who did not have access to personal transportation made sure her neighbor could get her and her child there to participate.

What would you say to other providers who are considering joining this program?

Do it! Don’t be afraid to fail. Start with potted herbs in your classroom for children to smell, touch and taste. There are all different ways to connect children to plants.

If you can, have children prepare a snack as a part of your program. Get fresh produce from a farmers market for them to wash and prepare. It makes them feel like they’re giving back to their classroom. There are easy ways to put produce in the hands of children without having a garden, but do try a garden, too!

The most important thing is getting in touch with plant care and fresh veggies and fruits.

What value do you see in being a part of Step Up To Quality?

I think that if we’re going to create a profession that supports professionals within it, we need to have an overarching program like this. It’s a measurable program that empowers providers to show they’re serious about quality care, and reaching certain steps can unlock even more employee benefits.

Ready to plan how your center can get involved with the Farm to Preschool program? Check out more recommendations for how to get started.

And if you haven’t enrolled in Step Up to Quality, we’d love to have you on board. We serve all child care and early childhood education programs throughout Nebraska with support and resources that continuously improve the quality of care provided. Learn more about our program benefits.