All Local, All The Time

Boulder Country program brings local produce and education to child care centers

In Boulder County, a program called Farm to Early Care & Education (Farm to ECE) is helping change how some of our littlest citizens view new and strange fresh fruits and vegetables.

The program, begun in 2015, serves the highest need and lowest income children across Boulder County by providing nutrition education and local produce to care centers for children from two-and-a-half to six years old.

To qualify for the Farm to ECE program, child care centers must have some element of subsidized payment options for families. That includes those that accept the county's Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) or that offer sliding scale tuition based on need or income level.

"The intention of the program is to try and provide opportunities for young children in childcare settings to try and develop tastes for fruits and vegetables from a young age," said Heather Hauswirth, the Boulder County Farm to ECE Program Specialist.

Research suggests that a new food item must be introduced to a child up to 20 times before that child may be willing to adopt it into their regular diet.

Farm to ECE is supported in part by health equity grant funds collected via the sugar sweetened beverage tax that was passed in 2016, and has three main components.

First, centers interested in being in the program must either have a garden, or be able to begin incorporating elements of actual gardening activities into their weekly schedule.

"It might be as simple as starting seeds inside, or having plants on the windowsill," according to Hauswirth. "Just having that experience of growing a seed can be hugely influential for a kid."

Next, the program provides each center with a box of local produce every week through the growing season for them to incorporate into daily snacks and meals. The county purchases shares in local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) from three local farms, including Ollin Farms in South Longmont, Cure Organic Farm, and Browns' Farm, and receives donated shares from the nonprofit Milk and Honey Farm at the Boulder Jewish Community Center.

The program encourages participants to give any leftovers at the end of the week out to families and childcare staff because "we are aware there are lots of families and childcare staff that are in need of fresh produce, as well," said Hauswirth.

The third and final component of the program involves nutrition education. This includes field trips, farmer activities, recipe cards, and activity cards.

The health equity funds allowed the program to hire Hauswirth, a registered dietician, as the full-time specialist to run the program in 2018, and the program has grown to support 68 childcare programs in the county. Hauswirth estimates they have positively impacted 3,060 children, 680 child care staff, and 4,590 additional family members in 2020.

Lisa McCoy, an assistant director and lead teacher with the New Explorers Learning Center in Nederland, is "excited to be a part of the Farm to ECE program."

McCoy said that early in the year, when the first produce boxes start arriving, "A lot of kids will go 'no way, man, I am not tasting that.'"

"And then they might lick it," McCoy said, "and you might have one or two kids who go, 'I kinda like it.'"

While children might be reluctant at first to try something new, Hauswirth has heard heartwarming stories from child care centers where they see a dramatic change in how the children feel and act over time. At one location, "through the course of the summer, they would always have leftover produce on Fridays which they would give away to their families."

But Hauswirth noted that, "Over the summer, the amount of food they had left to give families kept decreasing because the kids were more excited about it and more excited about tasting and trying produce."

"There's so much to be said for just the opportunity to explore and try new things."

The pandemic has affected the program in several ways, not all of them negative. For one, they were able to provide CSA boxes directly to families in need during the first stay at home phase of pandemic response in the spring, offering fresh, local produce during a time of increased food insecurity for some.

The county had to pause a farmers' market "veggie bucks" program component in 2020, but hopes to bring it back next year.

Field trips are also on pause for the time being, with partners such as Eco-Cycle, Growing Gardens, the participating farms, and others offering virtual tours and online programming to replace in-person visits, for now.

Tori Anderson, the wellness coordinator of the YWCA Persimmon Early Learning program in Boulder said, "Farm to ECE has had such a positive influence on our center. We have been able to introduce the children to new foods that are locally grown, give fresh produce to parents, and create new and fun nutrition lessons."

Overall, the program is encouraging children to go from "yucky" to "yummy" to appreciate the healthy bounty of local food that Boulder County has to offer, and instilling healthy habits that they will hopefully carry throughout their lives.


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