More local fruits and vegetables will soon be on the menu for day care centers throughout Wake County in an effort to foster lifelong healthy eating habits, especially among low-income children.
Wake County SmartStart, a nonprofit, will run a three-year project that connects farmers to day care centers that want to serve nutritious, local food. The program also will provide training and assistance to help day care staff prepare and serve the food.
The goal is to give children exposure to foods they may have limited access to, setting up preferences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
“What we know is the importance of shaping those eating patterns when children are young is really critical because they are open to the exploration of food and taste,” said Pam Dowdy, executive director of SmartStart. The group’s mission is to promote the healthy development of young children.
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The centers that participate in the project will qualify in part based on how many low-income children are enrolled. Low-income children may have less access to fresh food and have more risk factors associated with being overweight or obese, Dowdy said.
In Wake County, 16.9 percent of children ages 2 to 4 are overweight, and 15.7 percent are obese, according to 2011 state data.
Obese and overweight children are five times more likely than their peers to be overweight or obese as adults, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beyond the health risks associated with being overweight or obese, the conditions can drive up health care costs for both individuals and the health care system as a whole, Dowdy said.
The project, which will include more than 160 day care centers, is funded by a $675,639 grant from the John Rex Endowment.
SmartStart will work with Advocates for Health in Action, a Wake County group dedicated to healthy eating and exercise, and the Wake County Cooperative Extension to run the project. The program grew out of a pilot grant to AHA from the John Rex Endowment.
Wanda McCargo, owner of Wanda’s Little Hands Educational Center Inc. in Raleigh, is one of eight centers that participated in the pilot, which she said was a hit among the children at her day care.
Through the pilot, the center’s kitchen staff received training on how to prepare fruits and vegetables, and farmers set up a regular produce stand for families there. Even after the pilot, the center asked families to participate in a weekly salad bar.
“It was a real big plus for us because I saw there was a way for the kids, and even the parents, to eat more fruits and vegetables,” McCargo said.
When the project rolls out, day care centers will tailor the options to their needs, Dowdy said. One center may need lots of training for their kitchen staff while another be looking for a connection to a local farmer.
Over time, the project will build a set of resources that other day care centers will be able to access, without having to reinvent a program each time. Developing those resources is critical, because it helps the project endure beyond a one-time intervention and encourages day care owners who can see what their peers have done, said Sara Merz, executive director of AHA.
“They can say ‘yes’ and just start learning,” she said.
Carol Mitchell, local foods coordinator at Wake County Cooperative Extension, said the program is one of few in the country that connects farmers and day care centers.
She said that when the pilot started, farmers were eager to participate but wanted to make sure day care centers would understand the demands of growing and harvesting seasons, and how it would affect the availability and scheduling of food deliveries.
The farmers and day care owners worked to determine how their schedules best meshed, a process that will continue as the full program rolls out, Mitchell said.
“The relationships are so important to make it all work. That was a huge take home,” she said.