Autumn marks the end of the harvest – a time to give thanks and gather for celebratory meals. However, seasonal traditions can reinforce the challenges and inequities that many families with young children face in gaining access to nutritious food.
Over the past two school years, approximately one-third of Educare families reported food insecurity, or inconsistent access to enough food for a healthy lifestyle. For young children, in particular, food insecurity can result in immediate and long-term risk factors, including behavioral and attention problems, declines in academic performance and physical and mental health ailments.
To reduce these risks, Educare schools have developed innovative programs to help families increase food security and ensure that children can access the nutrients they need to grow and thrive in school and beyond.
Educare Denver Goes to Market
Clayton Early Learning, home to Educare Denver, recently received a grant to expand its Clayton Cares initiative, which originated during the pandemic, into a free Clayton Cares Market on the school’s campus. Each week, the market offers perishable and ethnically diverse foods, household supplies, clothing and books to school families, eliminating barriers through access to everyday materials.
“Families can now shop at the market, free of charge, with dignity and ease in a beautiful and convenient location to meet the specific needs of their children,” says Kristen Wilford-Adams, health and wellness director at Clayton.
Since opening on October 14, the market has served 172 families and about 4,000 pounds of fresh, frozen and non-perishable goods.
Throughout the year, Clayton’s early childhood classrooms grow food and learn in the 36 garden beds on campus, which have included a pumpkin patch and mini orchard. Fresh produce is harvested and given to the school’s kitchen to make smoothies and other healthy meals and snacks for the students.
“One in three children in Denver are obese,” says Sarah Berkman, Clayton’s vice president of development. “At Educare Denver, any child that begins our program underweight, overweight or obese trends into a healthy weight by the end of the school year.”
Any surplus goods that aren’t needed for classrooms are made available to families through the Clayton Cares Market.
Educare Central Maine Gets Edu-Cooking
Similarly, Educare Central Maine, where 28 percent of families report food insecurity, runs a pantry for families while incorporating hands-on cooking lessons into its curriculum all year round.
The school’s assistant cook, Jasmine, keeps healthy eating fun for children by sparking their curiosity through “Edu-Cooking” videos on YouTube. Each episode opens with a happy tune and then takes viewers through the recipe and preparation process. Families can find the ingredients that are featured in the videos at Central Maine’s “Educare Market” (sponsored in part by Share Our Strength and Good Shepherd Food Bank) as well as receive recommendations for meals to make using other items available there, including fresh vegetables harvested by the children.
Growing Beyond the Kitchen
Sharing food in early childhood programs results in more than just positive nutritional outcomes for young children and their families. Harvesting also brings children outdoors, where they can explore a wide variety of opportunities for creative, self-directed play and let their imaginations run wild.
“We know that children who have opportunities to play outside, immersed in nature, are physically and emotionally healthier,” says Rhonda Kaiser, school director at Central Maine. The school’s outdoor space, which includes sand and water features, walkways, tunnels, raised garden beds, grass and a mix of flowers and berry bushes, was intentionally designed to support children’s optimal brain development.
By involving children in the process of growing or cooking their own food, especially in thoughtfully crafted outdoor spaces, schools like Educare help kids build valuable social and emotional skills with each other while eliminating barriers to a healthy lifestyle and closing the opportunity gap for more children and families.