By Anne Blythe
Trying to provide healthy food for young children can seem like an exhausting exercise for many parents and childcare providers in today’s fast-paced world.
After all, life can get hectic.
Maybe one kid had to be dropped off at dance class and another had to be rushed home after school to pick up forgotten soccer shoes before being returned to the game. Unexpected but all-too-common events like this cut into time that could otherwise be used for meal planning or food shopping.
The thought of peeling carrots or chopping vegetables can easily be put off for another evening after a long day of work and carpooling. Especially when those lovable little ones who scurry around in the kitchen turn out to be greedy budget eaters with little patience for the time it takes to prepare a well-balanced meal.
Such pressures may have contributed to the findings of a study published by JAMA that looked at consumption trends over nearly two decades. Researchers found that by 2018, 67 percent of the calories in the diets of children and teens ages 2 to 19 came from ultra-processed foods.
So this NC Farm to School and Early Care and Education Month can be the perfect time to teach kids that some of the healthier foods don’t come from a box or shiny package from the convenience store. Tasty treats can be found on a tree branch or hanging from a root vegetable pulled from the soil. They can also be nutritious, without all the sugar, salt and fat found in the ultra-processed foods in the snack aisles or freezers of the grocery store.
The North Carolina Farm to Preschool Network has been working for eight years to help young children and their families become more aware of the importance of healthy eating habits while connecting them to local networks of farms and community gardens. They stepped up their efforts this month with messages that can resonate at home, at school, or in the many child care centers that cater to younger children.
The network, which aims to integrate nutrition education with diverse local food sourcing and on-site gardening, sponsors North Carolina Crunch. The statewide event features preschoolers, their families and educators munching on apples and fall vegetables as part of a campaign to reach at least half a million people in all 100 counties and celebrate North Carolina agriculture.
Connecting farmers and communities
Kimberly Shaw, owner of A Safe Place Child Enrichment Center in Raleigh, is one of the participants and a member of the network’s advisory committee.
The network has developed tools for child care providers who may need help deciding how many tomatoes, blueberries or pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to purchase for children in day care and after-school programs. They’ve broken the information down by age group for 1- to 2-year-olds, 3- to 5-year-olds, and 6- to 18-year-olds.
“We think this is important work because our children are important and the health of these children is in the hands of the adults,” Shaw said at an event last week where the children in his care gathered under a gazebo and sang songs, glorifying apple crunch. “We think if you shape a child’s palate at an early age, you can change those health outcomes to be the best they can be.”
The child care center, housed in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the state capital, borders a backyard garden where new cabbage leaves rise from freshly tilled soil and Rhode Island red chickens peck at the ground, hunting for grubs and other insects.
Abram Shaw, or Mr. Abram as the children call him, is the director of the garden and head of community work.
“Garden and community go hand in hand,” said Abram Shaw. “Put in so many words, it’s about reconnecting our community, our kids with fresh and local produce, and letting them know that I’m a farmer and you don’t need a tractor, you don’t need acres of land to grow food and eat local, eat fresh. You can do it. You can start small with a vision, and that’s where we are today.”
Backyard gardens will not be possible for all childcare centers. The network offers a decision tree in English and Spanish to help suppliers figure out whether a stand at a farmers market, food center, grocery store, local farm, or a weekly box delivered from one will work best for size and the organization’s mission.
It’s hard not to get excited about NC Farm to School and Early Care and Education Month when preschoolers sing the song “Apple Crunch” before sinking their teeth into the treats waiting for them in a red wagon parked in the gazebo.
Susan Osborne, undersecretary for opportunity and well-being at the state Department of Health and Human Services, joined the festivities this week at the Safe Place Child Enrichment Center, as did Diane Beth, nutrition program consultant for the children’s department and DHHS Family Wellbeing Division of Whole Child Health.
“We know that good nutrition is important throughout life, but it’s especially important for our growing children, growing bones, bodies, blood, all those things that they need to nourish every day,” Beth said. “Of course, we know that farm to early care in education is especially important because it’s really about teaching kids where their food comes from—from their farmers, whether they grow it themselves in their own gardens.”
There is a nationwide effort to introduce more fruits and vegetables into children’s diets with fewer ultra-processed chips, cookies and prepackaged meals. More recent research shows that ultra-processed foods have contributed to increased rates of obesity, diabetes and even high blood pressure in children as well as adults.
More than a third of North Carolina children are obese or overweight, according to national statistics. All too often they develop into adults with conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. About one in ten adults in North Carolina has diabetes. More than a third have been diagnosed with high blood pressure.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in two North Carolina children ages 1 to 5 do not eat a vegetable every day, according to DHHS. One in three preschoolers does not eat fruit every day. The farm-to-preschool program helped increase fruit and vegetable consumption by one daily serving, according to the program’s findings.
The CDC touts the Farm to Early Care and Education programs as ones that can teach children “about healthy eating by engaging all five senses” through activities such as gardening, farm visits and taste-testing local produce. These activities can improve a child’s diet and well-being, according to the CDC.
“It’s really important to have really fun taste tests to try new foods,” Beth added. “Programs like this … help maintain nutrition and nutritious meals. That can be really important.”
Learning to farm with the kids
Participants celebrating Farm to School and Early Care and Education Month are encouraged to share videos and photos online.
In Raeford, Robin Wright-Galbreth of Robin’s Nest Family Child Care is praised for her green thumb.
“I never knew much about farming or what it took to do it, but learning about the program showed me that there are things I can do on a smaller scale to help families and introduce other families to that, like, well, and learn along with me,” Wright-Galbreth said in a video posted on the NC Farm to Preschool Network YouTube channel. “Kids love to be outdoors. They love the outdoors. We all learn in different ways. Sometimes what you might try to teach them from the inside might not go over well, but if you try to teach them from the outside and try to do the same thing, you’ll have much better results than that because they love to openly. “
Rhonda Ray of Abundantly Love Child Care, who says she didn’t have the gift of growing up like Wright-Galbreth, thinks it’s important for the children in her care to learn lessons from the earth. They send seeds home with the young, and in the summer they treat them to seasonal fruits such as watermelon, peaches and strawberries.
Some attempts to broaden the tastes of the young don’t always win rave reviews. The kale chips, for example, got a two-thumbs-down review.
“I think it’s really important for kids to know where local food comes from, and then it lets them know, hey, we don’t always have to buy everything at the store,” Ray said in the video with Wright-Galbraith. “We can go local. farmer and get the product. And that’s a good thing. This will teach children, “See, this works. It’s not just peeling it off. Just because it’s in the store, somebody had to grow it and let them know, hey, that’s how it’s grown.”