Trying to get wholesome food into young children might seem like an exhausting exercise for many parents and child care providers in today’s rush-rush world.
After all, life can get hectic.
Perhaps one child had to be dropped off at dance class and another needed to be rushed home after school to grab forgotten soccer cleats before being ferried back to the game.
Unexpected, yet all-too-common, events like that cut into time that might otherwise be used for meal planning or food shopping.
The thought of peeling carrots or chopping vegetables can easily be pushed off to another night after a long day of work and carpooling.
Especially when those lovable little ones hovering underfoot in the kitchen morph into hangry fussbudgets with little patience for the time it takes to prepare a well-balanced meal.
Perhaps such pressures have contributed to the findings of a study published by JAMA that looked at consumption trends over nearly two decades. The researchers found that by 2018, 67 percent of the calories in the diets of children and teens, ages 2 to 19, were from ultra-processed foods.
So this NC Farm to School and Early Care and Education Month could be the perfect time to teach children that some of the healthier food doesn’t come out of a box or glitzy package from the convenience store. Tasty treats can be found on a tree branch or dangling from a root vegetable pulled from the soil.
They can be nutritious, too, without all the sugars, salt and fats found in ultra-processed foods in snack food aisles or store freezers.
The North Carolina Farm to Preschool Network has been working for eight years to help young children and their families better recognize the importance of healthy eating habits while also connecting them to local farm networks and community gardens. They’ve stepped up their efforts this month with messages that can resonate at home, at school or in the many child care centers that look after younger children.
The network, which aims to integrate nutrition education with diverse local food procurement and on-site gardening, is sponsoring North Carolina Crunch.
The statewide event has preschool children, their families and caregivers munching on apples and fall vegetables as part of a campaign to reach at least half a million people in all 100 counties and celebrate North Carolina agriculture.
Connecting farmers and communities
Kimberly Shaw, owner of A Safe Place Child Enrichment Center in Raleigh, is one of the participants and a member of the network advisory committee.
The network has developed tools for child care providers who might need help deciding how many tomatoes, blueberries or pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to purchase for children in daycare and after-school programs. They’ve broken the information down by age groups for 1- to 2-year-olds, 3- to 5-year-olds, and 6- to 18-year-olds.
“We think this is important work because our children are important, and the health of those children are in the adults’ hands,” Shaw said at an event last week in which the children in her care gathered under a gazebo and sang songs celebrating the crunch of an apple. “We think if you shape a child’s palate at a young age, you can change those health outcomes to be the best that they can be.”
The child care center, housed in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the state’s capital city, abuts a backyard garden plot where new kale leaves riseout of freshly tilled soil and Rhode Island Red chickens peck at the ground, hunting for grubs and other insects.
Abram Shaw, or Mr. Abram, as the kids call him, is the garden director and head of community outreach.