Early Returns: Bringing the Farm to Preschool

How do you get a 4-year-old to put down a bag of chips and pick up an apple?

There's no simple answer, as any parent can tell you, but what we're discovering across the country is that farm to preschool programs are a great way to start.

Ask Kiersten Firquain, known to young children in Kansas City as Chef K, and she'll share a telling story. In partnership with Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of 150 family farms in the region around Kansas City, Chef K runs a program called Bistro Kids that connects children at Head Start preschools with healthy, local food.

Bistro Kids supplies not only the food and the chefs but training for Head Start staff and - most importantly - learning opportunities for the 3- to 5-year-old kids: gardening projects, taste tests, visits from local farmers and field trips to farms and grocery stores.

Chef K observed something remarkable on a recent field trip. On the bus ride to a grocery store, the kids were pointing out fast food restaurants as they went by and calling out, "Hamburgers! French fries! Chips!" After spending time in the produce section, on the bus ride back, they were calling out, "Apples! Oranges! Bananas!"

Bistro Kids is based on the farm to school model, an established way to bring good, fresh, local food to students in grades K-12--especially underserved kids who often lack access to good food at home and in their neighborhood. According to the National Farm to School Network, farm to school programs reach more than 40,000 schools, engaging more than 23 million students.

What makes farm to preschool programs especially effective is that they reach children at a crucial early stage when their tastes are forming and they're developing lifelong preferences and eating habits.

Farmers regularly visit the Head Start preschools served by Bistro Kids, perhaps wearing beekeeper's garb to hand out honey, or with a bison hide for the kids to feel and bison meat to taste. One class grew cabbage in the garden and gave it to the chef, who served it steamed. "It was they best thing they'd ever tasted," Chef K says, "because it was their cabbage."

Farm to preschool isn't without logistical challenges, yet, as Kerry Newberry notes in Civil Eats, preschools often have greater flexibility in food purchasing than K-12 schools, as well as more time to devote to cooking, eating, gardening and learning about good nutrition.

We know our children need to become better acquainted with good food and where it comes from. "Kids are used to peaches from a can," Chef K says, "but we serve fresh peaches." She recalls one child saying, "This isn't a peach--it's fuzzy and it's got a pit in the middle of it!"

October is National Farm to School Month, and farm to preschool had its own day, October 15. But every day should be farm to preschool day.

"I can't believe my kid just asked me to cook broccoli for dinner just like Bistro Kids chef does," a parent recently wrote in an email to Chef K. "He's never eaten broccoli before and now he's mad at me because I don't have the recipe!"

Perhaps one of the best things about farm to preschool is this eagerness of our youngest children to share what they've learned about healthy food with their families.

Ultimately, we all can play a role in supporting farm to preschool efforts: helping a preschool set up a program, volunteering to cook at a preschool or gardening with the kids. And even encouraging USDA and policymakers to make it easier for farm to preschool programs to get off the ground and keep growing.