This is what I get for opening my mouth.
Three years ago, I told the director of my daughter’s day care that I would love to see more fresh fruit instead of canned fruit served to the children. She used that opening to recruit me to run the center’s parents’ group.
Many volunteer workdays and parents’ group meetings later, I have a pretty good idea what my future experience will be with the PTA.
Earlier this year, the new director at Method Child Development Center secured a small grant to help increase the servings of fresh, local fruits and vegetables to the children. Since the center is down some staff, parents volunteered to go to the farmers’ market to buy produce each week: peaches, pears, apples, watermelons, cucumbers and zucchini. We even grew tomatoes and cantaloupes in the center’s garden.
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I have certainly become more educated on the challenges that child care centers – and I assume schools as well – face to break the processed-canned-frozen food habit. We had to buy new knives, cutting boards and kitchen tools. The staff had to learn when fruits and vegetables are in season. It reminded me of the learning curve I experienced when I became a food writer. I learned that the best local strawberries are only available for about eight weeks in the spring regardless of the fact that strawberries are sold year-round at the store.
Last month, I attended a training session for child care center directors and teachers about how to improve playgrounds and gardens. (I admit I might be a tad over-involved at Method.) A panel of directors and teachers spoke about their efforts to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Each of the panelists worked at centers that had benefited from two grant programs funded by the Raleigh-based John Rex Endowment. The first is the Farm-To-Childcare grant, a $675,000 grant run by Wake County Smart Start, Wake County Cooperative Extension and Advocates for Health in Action. The second is the Preventing Obesity By Design grant run by N.C. State University’s Natural Learning Initiative. The latter works to improve playgrounds to increase children’s physical activity and food awareness. The grant programs have overlapping aims and many centers have used both to create and improve their vegetable gardens, plant fruit trees and increase the fresh fruits and vegetables served to the children. (Method is also among the latest four Wake County centers to get the Preventing Obesity By Design grants.)
More fresh food
At Childcare Network on Raleigh’s Western Boulevard, center director Wanda Davis explained that they have reduced the canned food they serve by 50 percent, mainly during the last four years since the center received both grants. She buys produce once a week from a farmer who delivers it to the center.
On a tour of the center with its 11 classrooms serving about 179 students, Davis described the progress. There are okra, sweet potatoes and mustard greens growing in raised beds on every playground. Muscadine grape vines cling to a chain-link fence. A small grove of blueberries dot a hillside.
“We had no idea that these beds would produce so much food,” Davis said. “We haven’t planted any tomatoes in about three years. They keep coming back.”
James Bullock, the center’s STEM teacher, says the gardens help make his science lessons more tangible. He can use every step from seed to plate as a lesson for the children as they help plant, weed and harvest. Several years into the program, the 4-year-olds in Bullock’s classroom are becoming experienced gardeners. “This is the first year we’ve had kids come up with the basics,” Bullock said. “They know what a watering can is.”
Bullock still has plenty to teach them, adding: “But they don’t know what needs watering.”
Davis said serving more fresh fruits and vegetables to the children has also benefited the staff and families who are being exposed to new foods. The farmer sells his produce in the center’s parking lot once a month. Her staff leaves any extra harvested vegetables in the lobby for families to take home. Parents often tell her that their children request items they’ve been served at school.
I heard similar stories from other center directors. Holly Bryant, an assistant director at Primary Beginnings on Spring Forest Road in North Raleigh, said, “We served squash, cabbage and black-eyed peas – things you never think children would eat and they cleaned their plates.”
Kim Shaw, the director at A Safe Place Childcare in Raleigh, said they ended up installing about 950 square feet of gardening space between the playgrounds and a production garden. By the end of August, Shaw said they had harvested 170 pounds of produce, including kale, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, okra, cucumbers, squash and tomatoes. All of it was used to feed the children who no longer balk at trying new foods.
“That’s the biggest joy for me – the openness to new foods,” Shaw said.
Before the grant, Kimmie Champitto, assistant director at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, said they were serving fresh produce about twice a week from a limited range: grapes, apples, bananas, oranges, spinach and lettuce. Now, it’s three times a week and the offerings include all of the above, plus watermelon, spaghetti squash, sweet potatoes and more. A kale and orange salad was a big hit with the children.
“That’s one of our most popular lunch items now,” Champitto said.
Changing what children eat
All of this is important work says Sara Merz, director of Advocates for Health in Action, because children develop their taste preferences by the age of 5. She explains that children have to be exposed to new tastes between 10 and 17 times before they know if it is something they like.
This is the second year for the Farm-To-Childcare grant program. The administrators are working with 28 Wake County centers serving almost 1,000 children. The funds the centers receive range from $217 for a home-based child care center with five children to $5,568 for a center with 193 children. The grant funds aren’t intended to buy produce but to help improve a production garden or buy equipment for the kitchen.
The program, Merz said, is seeing results. The average number of servings of fresh and local produce for this year went from two a week to five. The average servings of fresh produce regardless of where it was grown increased to 10.7 a week. This grant, Merz said, “is changing what those children are eating right now.”
While Method’s menus have improved, there’s still room for more improvement. Now I can at least see where we hope to end up and I have a better idea of how to get there.