What is Farm to Early Care and Education?

Farm to Early Care and Education Activities

Outside Instruction

Farm to early care and education is a group of activities and strategies that include the use of local foods in meals and snacks, gardening opportunities, and food-based learning activities, implemented with the goals of promoting health and wellness and enhancing the quality of the educational experience. Students are exposed to healthy, local foods through meals and snacks, taste tests, lessons, cooking activities, gardening, field trips, farmer visits, and more. Farm to early care and education applies the three core elements of farm to school − local procurement, gardening, and food-related educational activities − to a wide variety of early care and education settings, including preschools, child care centers, family child care homes, Head Start/Early Head Start, and programs in K-12 school districts.

MSU Child Development Center Students explore garden.

  • Gardening - Gardening opportunities in the early care and education setting may range from raised garden beds in the backyard of a family child care home to an indoor herb garden on the windowsill of a Head Start center. Some programs may choose to partner with local school or community gardens. Even for very young children, the hands-on sensory engagement of gardening offers experiential learning opportunities and facilitates an understanding and connection to how food grows.
  • Serving local foods - Local food purchasing or procurement in early care and education settings can vary widely depending on program structure, size of program, and type of meal program. However, local foods, from fruits and vegetables to grains, meats, dairy, and eggs, can be served in all types of settings as snacks, meal components, or in taste testing activities. The Montana Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) not only allows, but encourages the use of local foods in CACFP meals and snacks. 

  • Food based learning activities - Local food taste-testing and gardening lessons are two of many food and agriculture related education activities that may be introduced in early care and education settings. Other education opportunities include having a farmer or chef visit to talk about how food is grown, produced, or prepared; reading books about gardening, cooking, and local foods; or utilizing local foods and plants for sensory exploration or math and science related activities. Field trips to farms, orchards, and ranches also provide engaging educational opportunities. A number of prepared curricula offering teacher guides, lesson plans, and family newsletters are available to make incorporating activities into the classroom easy.

Why Farm to Early Care and Education?

Students trying leafy greens

Like farm to school in K-12 schools, farm to early care and education offers benefits for kids, producers, and the community. Reaching children and their families in these early years offers additional benefits to our littlest eaters. Farm to early care and education is a critical strategy for early childhood development for three important reasons: health, parent and community engagement, and high quality education opportunities. These key reasons parallel the priorities of the early care and education community and highlight how farm to early care and education activities help providers provide the highest quality care and educational experience available to their children.

  • Health - The earliest years of life are formative years for developing taste preferences and eating habits. Farm to early care and education activities like taste tests, cooking lessons, and gardening offer repeat exposure to new, healthy foods, promoting lifelong healthy food preferences and eating patterns, and decreasing the risk of obesity in childhood and beyond.

  • Parent and community engagement - Gardening and food-related activities appeal to parents and create more opportunities for meaningful family engagement. Young children take home the excitement of learning about new foods and act as a catalyst for change, influencing parent and family food choices. Additionally, farm to school benefits the entire community. Purchasing local food creates market opportunities for family farmers, and food-based learning educates all involved, including teachers and providers, about healthy habits and their local food system.

  • High-quality education - The experiential learning opportunities associated with farm to early care and education enhance the learning environment, can help achieve early learning standards, and support appropriate cognitive, emotional, social and physical development, all important priorities for children, parents and providers.