In late February of this year, we welcomed Melissa Freiburger as the newest addition to Families, Farmers and Educators United (FFEU). Melissa is our Family Engagement Facilitator and has spent the past couple of months creating new and exciting initiatives at all nine of our participating child care centers. In the first couple of years of the FFEU program, our CSA arrangements and the Weekly Harvest Newsletter were really the only ways we reached families of children in the participating child care centers. Initially, we were focused on reaching the children and early educators through gardening, training and the Root for Food curriculum. However, we became increasingly aware that the families of the participating children often were not aware of the program. Fortunately, we were awarded a Recognition Grant from the Kansas Health Foundation early this year and were able to hire Melissa to focus entirely on engaging families in the program.
As we all know, children are sponges. They soak up all of the information their brains are taking in throughout the day. Often, at child care, if they see their friends and teachers eating healthy fruits and vegetables, they are more likely to eat it themselves. We hear over and over that parents are shocked at the vegetables their child is willing to eat in child care that they would never touch at home. It’s fantastic that early educators are able to provide that environment and opportunity to eat healthy. However, if the child then goes home to a dinner devoid of anything green, those healthy habits are not reinforced. That’s why we decided that bringing families into the process of learning healthier habits was crucial.
The outcome we’re looking for is cultural change, which is a challenging task. Melissa is doing an amazing job at increasing the visibility of healthy eating, gardening and food preparation. The more that parents see these activities happening at their child care center, the more interested they become in trying new foods themselves. First, Melissa sent out a survey to families to find out what they would be interested in doing. The year’s plan has been based on those results. One activity that is now happening at each center is taste tests. Each month, Melissa will bring a new food for kids and families to try. In May, each center got to try spinach pesto! If kids tried the pesto, they could then vote by tossing a pom pom into the jar labeled, “I like it” or “not today.” Parents were shocked to see their child willing to try this new green food, and they were even more surprised when their child liked it! One boy was not sure he wanted to try it and was headed out the door. Once he was outside, he changed his mind and asked his dad to take him back inside to try it. What brave kids! The more they see their own families and friends trying new foods, planting gardens and cooking healthy meals, the more willing and excited they are to do the same.
The family engagement activities generally take place between 4 and 6pm to make sure to catch families when they pick up their child. Another activity came from an incredibly valuable new partnership with the Master Gardeners. We have been so lucky as to find several Master Gardeners who are excited about our program and have been willing to give their time and expertise to set up garden information booths at several of the centers. Children and parents alike have loved having these volunteers present at their centers to talk about gardening and take home their very own chive plants! Slowly, families are beginning to recognize Melissa at their center and they know she will have something fun to do. Other activities have included seed plantings, a composting lesson, CSA promotion, field trips to farms and the farmers’ market, planting parties and a cooking class by Harvesters that we hope to continue. We’ve also added a second page on to our Weekly Harvest newsletter that includes a take home activity involving gardening, cooking or exploring local foods in our community. As families learn more about the benefits of healthy eating, gardening and the local food system by engaging in fun activities with their child, we hope that the culture will slowly shift in a positive direction. Luckily, most people have a tradition of agriculture and healthy food preparation in their recent family history. We just need to remind each other that learning those self-sufficiency skills again can be fun and rewarding. We can then pass the knowledge down to the next generation and continue making progress toward a healthier and more engaged community.