What do day care centers and small farms have in common?
The link is food — fresh, healthy, locally produced food, that is. Children consume as much as half of their daily caloric intake in a school or day care setting, and what they eat matters. By building the connection between Early Care and Education centers and local farmers, both parties benefit. That’s the idea behind the new project that the Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) is embarking on. Together with their partners, the Iowa Farm to Early Care and Education Coalition, the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative and the Association for Education of Young Children, IFU is working to create long-term changes in Iowa’s food systems.
“We’re excited to help make the connection between farmers and early childhood education providers and healthy communities,” said Aaron Lehman, Iowa Farmers Union president. “More than ever, we know that Iowa farmers and locally produced healthy food must play a huge role.”
Kelly Hanson, Farm to Early Care and Education specialist at the Iowa Association for the Education of Young Children, expounds on the need for collaboration on this important issue. “[We] started looking at this area in 2016. We quickly learned that tackling food access within the complexity of early childhood settings was a sophisticated issue. In a lot of ways it’s about building both sides of the market at the same time. We need early childhood settings with the knowledge, interest and ability to purchase locally produced foods while simultaneously identifying producers that are willing to meet this need. Over the past two years, we have made great headway learning about early childhood settings and their needs, and are so grateful to now include the Iowa Farmers Union to bridge with the farming community.”
The project is funded by a $325,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich. With input from their partners, IFU will research policy options and bring together key stakeholders to develop and disseminate a set of recommendations for political action at the local, state, and federal level. The project has two intertwining goals. The first is to empower education institutions to offer healthy, local foods and encourage the development of healthy eating habits. The second is to enhance the viability of small farmers by strengthening systems that process, distribute, and market local food. The anticipated outcome is increased access to healthy local food for all Iowans.
“We are thrilled to have the Iowa Farmers Union joining the Farm to Early Education initiative in Iowa,” said Jon Jensen from the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative. “With its focus on improving access to healthy, local food for pre-schools, Head Start and all early education centers, this is vitally important for kids and creates new markets for Iowa farmers.” Jensen, from the Center for Sustainable Communities at Luther College, noted how their initiative has resulted in millions of dollars in new institutional sales in Northeast Iowa. “With the Farmers Union leading this effort, we see huge potential for growth, simultaneously benefiting both kids and farmers. It really is a win-win.”
Jensen continues, “We are deeply grateful to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for continuing to invest in the future of Iowa. The Farmers Union is the perfect partner to foster conversation and build a statewide network of diverse stakeholders to advance local food systems in Iowa. This is a unique opportunity for all Iowans to come together to find the synergies in serving young kids while strengthening the farm economy.”