Addressing Childhood Obesity
The prevalence of overweight and obese children in Idaho is a cause of concern for health and wellness professionals across the state. In 2019, University of Idaho Extension set out to address this issue through a new program targeted at 3-to-5-year-olds.
The program, Farm to Early Care and Education (farm to ECE), is linked to national farm to school efforts but focuses on introducing local, fresh fruits and vegetables to children aged 3-to-5 years old. A grant from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare allowed UI Extension to launch a pilot of the program in the South Central Public Health District.
The farm to school movement works to bring local food sourcing, school gardens and food and agriculture education into schools while strengthening the local economy. In addition to promoting health and wellness, farm to ECE expands healthy food access, encourages family and community engagement and provides additional market opportunities for farmers.
“Farm to ECE reaches some of our most vulnerable youth at a very early age when they are just starting to form opinions and tastes related to food choices. It also connects early child care providers with resources to bring more high quality, locally produced food into their centers when it is in season and most affordable,” said Ariel Agenbroad, UI Extension area educator in community food systems and small farms and Idaho Core Partner with the National Farm to School Network.
Bringing Farm to ECE to Idaho
The UI Extension pilot began in September 2019 at 10 sites in Blaine, Cassia, Jerome and Twin Falls counties. Curriculum kits are delivered to each site monthly and include lesson plans, games, books and exercises featuring the harvest of the month vegetable. The program is currently reaching 400 children.
Educators at the 10 sites provide feedback on lesson plans and measure the children’s willingness to try new foods. UI Extension farm to ECE Program Coordinator Alleah Schweitzer meets with educators at the beginning of each month to discuss the curriculum and expectations. At the end of the month she gathers feedback on what did and didn’t work and how the children are responding to the curriculum.
Schweitzer also purchases produce from local farms and delivers it to each location. She is currently working with three farms but hopes to expand to additional farms.
“We’ve been really lucky to work with some dedicated educators and farmers who are fully committed to the goals of farm to ECE. We’re encouraging local food purchasing and we want to reach as many local producers as possible,” she said.
Success So Far
Although the program is still in early stages, Schweitzer has received positive feedback from parents who are excited that their children are trying new foods and learning how food is grown and where it comes from. Educators are already seeing changes in the foods that children are willing to try.
“There are so many benefits. Kids gain access to nutritious and high quality foods; activities that help children establish healthy eating habits in a fun and hands-on way; and farmers are presented with economic opportunities,” Schweitzer said.
An additional benefit of farm to ECE is the access that early childhood educators have to parents.
“Parents and early childhood educators have more contact than the K through 12 systems and frequent contact makes it a little easier to help promote healthy eating at home,” Schweitzer said. “Educators are also present during the meals making it easier to integrate the education and model healthy eating habits.”
The pilot program runs through May 2020 and Schweitzer and UI Extension area educators Ariel Agenbroad and Maureen Toomey will evaluate the program for improvements with the hope of eventually taking it statewide.
“Ultimately we would like this to be a statewide program,” Schweitzer said. “We want to help children develop healthy and lifelong eating habits and the way we do that is to scale this statewide. Farm to School is very closely associated with an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption at home and school and a greater willingness to try new foods which is why this program is so important, especially in our state.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Photos by Alleah Schweitzer, University of Idaho Extension
Published in October 2019