Head Start began as an eight-week demonstration project in 1965 to help break the cycle of poverty, providing preschool children of low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs. Since then it has become the nation’s largest federally funded early child care and education program for children zero to five years old.
Good nutrition has always been a focus of the program, but many of the children in Head Start programs don’t have access to fresh, local foods at home. Discussing this fact a couple of years ago, Dr. Betty Izumi of Portland State University and Dawn Barberis of Mt. Hood Community College’s Head Start program came up with the idea for the Harvest for Healthy Kids project.
Based on farm-to-school food programs that were being piloted around the country, it would not only bring healthier foods into the Head Start food service program, it would educate children about fresh fruits and vegetables by engaging the children in activities centered around a featured food.
One recent week the featured vegetable was carrots.
“The children are cooking with carrots and doing carrot art activities,” said Dr. Izumi. “They’re reading books about carrots and gardening and doing planting activities. The program is unique in that the featured food is really being integrated into the rhythm of the Head Start day.”
Originally funded by Kaiser Permanente, Harvest for Healthy Kids has recently received a three-year grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust to expand into the Early Head Start program for low income, pregnant women and families with children who are zero to three.
Knowing that the program has secure funding has Dr. Izumi dreaming of how she can involve Head Start families in discovering and accessing the bounty of fresh food available in the region.
“We would love to have a CSA program where Head Start families could pick up [their] share when they’re picking up their child,” she said, adding that they’re also hoping to provide ingredients so a family can prepare the recipe that was cooked in the classroom that day.
It’s been a rewarding experience, and one that reaffirms Dr. Izumi’s belief that exposing children to fresh foods early in life can have ripple effects that will benefit them and their families well into the future.
“Children really do like fruits and vegetables,” she said. “They want to eat them. But they need to taste good and they need to be fresh and they need to be presented in a way that looks appetizing.”
An earlier version of this story appeared on Cooking Up A Story.