Little Eaters Grow in the Garden, Seeding the Future of the Food Movement



Ten students frolic along a path, passing flowering cilantro and Swiss chard leaves the size of elephant ears. One pauses to point out a ladybug, which leads to an impromptu lesson from gardener Suzanne Stone about aphids. Another student marvels at periwinkle-blue borage blooms, an opportunity to teach companion planting and culinary herbs.

This is a garden class at New Day School in Portland, Oregon, a preschool for two-and-a-half to five-year-old children that enrolls between 80 to 100 students throughout the year.

Classes take place in two brightly colored buildings, behind which is a playground and a half-acre garden plot. Beds of edible greens, heirloom vegetables, and kitchen herbs sprout among berry bushes and fruit trees—a mix of fig, plum, apple, and cherry, which number close to twenty.

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Preschool gardener Suzanne Stone teaches a student how to plant kale.

“We are trying to create a food forest,” says Stone—or Gardener Suzanne, as the students call her—who uses the garden as a teaching space throughout the year.

The garden classroom at New Day School is one example of a farm to preschool program—a growing movement that connects young children (ages 0 to 6) with local foods. The farm to preschool movement was born from the thriving national farm to school movement, which, until recently, was focused primarily on children in grades K-12. About five years ago, a growing body of evidence surfaced showing that long-lasting habits and attitudes toward food are formed before children enter kindergarten. The research convinced a handful of farm to school practitioners that early child-care and education settings were the next critical venue to target for the promotion of healthy eating. Activities under the farm to preschool banner range from sourcing food from local farms and planting gardens, to taste tests, farmer visits, and field trips to farmers’ markets, farms, and community gardens. Many preschools were doing these activities piecemeal, but for the first time, an effort to knit together their work, provide more resources, and help more preschools come on board blossomed.

“I see a lot of growth and changes in the kids over the years,” says Stone, who has been teaching the garden class at New Day School since 2002. “For one, their palates grow,” she says. Throughout the seasons, students try chickweed, arugula, and dandelion roots—sometimes their first taste of wild flavors. These nuanced tastes become familiar, says Stone.

“At this age they are so excited, they want to be part of everything,” says Stone. She believes that teaching gardening in the preschool years makes growing food an elemental part of education, similar to learning to count, read, and write.

Because of the hands-on gardening classes, students at New Day School are aware that food does not come from the supermarket. “It comes from soil, sun, rain, red wiggler worms, hard-working hands, and the love of a gardener,” says Stone.

The Freedom to Experiment

“Studies show that kids need at least ten to fifteen exposures to a food before they like it,” says Katy Pelissier, farm to school coordinator at Portland-based non-profit Ecotrust. “Growing, harvesting, and cooking food with children all contribute to these needed multiple exposures.”

In 2008, the farm to school team at the Oregon nonprofit Ecotrust was among the first wave from the farm to school community who was convinced that early child-care settings were the next frontier. In partnership with the Oregon Child Development Coalition, Ecotrust piloted one of the first farm-to-preschool programs in the country at three Head Start sites serving high-need children and families. During the pilot project, the sites bought more local food, went on farm field trips, and began using the garden as a classroom. The success of the experiment led to the formation of the Oregon Farm to Preschool Coalition in 2012, a group of 25-plus leaders from the fields of early child care, education, and farm to school. The coalition has guided the development of training around the state for child-care staff and providers on how to start and utilize edible gardens, purchase and prepare local seasonal foods, coordinate farm field trips, and employ sensory tables to develop kids’ taste for a diverse array of fruits and vegetables.

“Across the country, we are seeing the greatest farm to preschool success where key partnerships are formed, linking the food and farming, public health, and early care and learning arenas,” says Mary Stein, deputy director of the National Farm to School Network. “Collectively, they are able to put in place innovative approaches to improve healthy eating habits for our little ones.”

One of the challenges for farm to preschool is the variability in program settings, which can range from family home care to private preschool and Montessori to Head Start. This makes establishing standard processes and models for local food procurement and educational activities tricky.

For many, though, it is an opportunity to be creative. Early child-care settings often have more flexibility with their food purchasing than public schools do, and more time built into the day for experiential education. Though many preschools lack the buying power of large school districts, smaller child-care centers can experiment with building relationships with small-scale producers nearby, subscribing to community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), or harvesting food from their own gardens.

At New Day School, the primary engagement with fresh, local food is in the garden and through meals. Each class is served a seasonal, made-from-scratch vegan lunch as well as two snacks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The cook, Atandra Didi, strives to provide a balanced diet, with an emphasis on whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Depending on the time of year, the snacks will range from kale chips to fresh fruit crisps (sourced from the garden), or coconut-milk oatmeal with raisins and sliced apples.

The school’s 2013 harvest yielded 3,000 pounds of vegetables and fruits from its half-acre garden. A parent volunteer estimated the value of this produce at close to $10,800 using typical organic prices.

Every season in the garden, there is something to celebrate. In autumn, the students make popcorn and carve pumpkins. In winter, they learn about Douglas Fir and craft satchels stuffed with pine needles. Once a week in the summertime, Didi makes pasta and tops it with garden kale pesto. “They just devour it,” she says. When children come back to visit, she always asks for their favorite memory. Many of them reply: the food.

A Learning Community

Farm to preschool is growing rapidly, not only in Oregon, but also at a national level, generating hundreds of programs. The Centers for Disease Control and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care initiative have recognized farm to preschool as a strategy to combat high rates of obesity among preschool-age kids. (Approximately one in five U.S. children are overweight or obese by their sixth birthday, and research has shown that a third of children who were overweight in kindergarten were obese by eighth grade.) Many preschoolers consume the majority of their daily nutrients in child-care settings, relying entirely on adults to create their food and activity environments. National leaders see the farm to preschool approach, which weaves education and local community participation into its fabric, as a holistic way to turn the tide.

“These child-care centers are raising a new generation of children who are going to have a connection to their food system that was starting to be lost,” says Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s farm to school manager, who also leads the national farm to preschool initiative on behalf of the National Farm to School Network. “Now they will be making different choices as they become young adults—choices that will impact not just their own personal health, but also the health of their families and entire communities.” By working in the child-care setting, where kids are learning social skills and norms, Sobell believes that the hard work that many people are undertaking to create a more equitable and environmentally sound food system has a much greater chance to take hold and become part of our social fabric. “We are planting seeds for twenty years down the road.”

When students are very young, there is a high level of family engagement, which means that families are also impacted positively by these local food initiatives.

At New Day School, parents log volunteer hours in the garden. “As a result, they feel more connected to the program,” says Stone. “And their children are really proud.” A student will easily remember and point to a sunflower or sorrel patch planted by a parent.

In Oregon, the enthusiasm generated from the farm to preschool training prompted Ecotrust to fundraise for a mini-grant program that launched this year. The grants, ranging from $500 to $2,000, were awarded to new and expanding farm to preschool projects in Oregon, and grantees will receive technical assistance from Ecotrust and each other. The mini-grants prioritize child-care programs such as Head Start, which serve some of the most vulnerable children and families in Oregon. “Even a program that starts small still sparks curiosity and enthusiasm in children,” says Pelissier.

The grants set the stage for early child-care programs to explore innovative practices for the procurement of local foods, such as cooperative purchasing.

The networking component is one of the hardest to get funded, but those are the dollars I appreciate the most. They’re worth their weight in gold,” says Sara Miller, development specialist with Northeast Oregon Rural Economic Development, who helped secure a mini-grant for a collaborative of five child-care centers in rural Oregon’s Wallowa County.

Back at New Day School, Didi describes the importance of using the garden as a teaching tool. “When we eat fruits and vegetables right off the plants, it makes us happy. In turn, we take care of the earth. These are the kind of concepts we are trying to teach the children,” she says. Stone also finds the garden nourishes the students. “Many of them proudly tell me of their gardens at home and that they want to be a gardener when they grow up,” she says. “I am excited to visit their gardens someday as an old lady.”

This story has been condensed from an earlier version, published in Edible PortlandPhotos by Shawn Linehan.

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