Eating Well from the Ground Up

Good nutrition helps children grow, develop, and maintain a healthy weight. Being healthy also improves their self-esteem and well-being. When children are healthy, they are more able to learn and do well in school.

Head Start programs serve nutritious meals in a positive eating environment, teach children and families about healthy eating habits, and make sure that families have access to critical food assistance programs and tips for eating well on a budget. Well-balanced meals, food security, and nutrition education are integral parts of the Head Start comprehensive health services.

Find strategies for healthy eating below.

Visit Farms, Farmers Markets, and Grocery Stores

Farmers markets and some specialty stores offer fresh, nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Field trips to farmers markets, working farms, or even grocery store produce departments are great ways to introduce children and families to fresh fruits and vegetables. Children may be surprised to find that they like many of them. With planning, farmers market vendors, farmers, and produce managers are often happy to “show and tell” — usually with tasty samples of their fruits and vegetables. They may share food samples and sometimes give cooking demonstrations, too.

Specialty grocery stores may sell a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. For instance, stores specializing in Latino foods may offer items like jicama, tomatillo, and cactus. Stores specializing in Middle Eastern foods may have a bigger selection of beans, squashes, and okra than some families are used to seeing. Specialty grocery stores are great field trips for children and adults. Children may be eager to pick out and try new foods. Teachers can use the foods the children choose in the lesson plans and for healthy snacks. Teachers can also encourage families to use these new foods in recipes at home.

Start a Garden

Gardening exposes children to healthy foods and offers moderate physical activity and opportunities for positive social interactions. Picking fruits and vegetables, taking care of plants, or living near a garden as a child can have a positive impact. Children who grow their own foods are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables than those who do not. These healthy behaviors can last a lifetime.

Gardening also teaches children about where food comes from and builds math and science skills. Children touch, smell, and taste the fruits and vegetables. They learn that fruits and vegetables are grown from plants or trees in the ground. Planting activities help children become familiar with different growing conditions and plants that produce fruits and vegetables. A study of children with learning disabilities who gardened found that they increased their nonverbal communication skills, developed awareness of the advantages of order, learned how to participate in a cooperative effort, and formed positive relationships with adults.

Gardening does not need to be expensive, but you do have to buy some things. You need seeds or starter plants, gardening tools, and a water source. Be sure there are some adult-sized tools and plenty that are child-sized, too. Gardens can be either above ground in a raised garden bed or planted directly into the ground. If you decide on a raised garden bed, you need non-pressure-treated wood and good soil to fill the bed. If you choose to plant directly in the existing dirt, you need something to nourish the soil, like mulch or compost. Local hardware stores, garden suppliers, and garden clubs may be willing to donate labor, expertise, supplies, and equipment. Families who are gardeners are also great resources.

Gardening is good for children and adults. Staff and families benefit from both the physical activity and easy access to free or low-cost fruits and vegetables. If your program does not have space for a garden, consider getting involved with or promoting a nearby community garden.

Case Study: Gardening at the Oregon Child Development Coalition

When the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC) made a commitment to incorporate gardening into all its centers, it was unclear how each center would achieve this goal. OCDC is one of the nation’s largest providers of Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, Early Head Start, and pre-K programs. It serves more than 4,000 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers throughout Oregon. Some centers have ample land, accessible for vegetable growing and gardening, and some have very limited space. Despite these challenges, each center has launched successful programs that give children invaluable hands-on experiences that support learning and development.

Each OCDC center was free to incorporate a garden in its own way. OCDC’s Ashland site, which has limited space, built a small container garden to grow herbs, which exposes children to new sensory experiences in smell and taste. The staff paired this program with a field trip to a pumpkin patch to deepen the children’s experience and understanding of growing food. The pumpkins they gathered became part of the lunch menu as a shepherd’s pie, thanks to the collaboration between education staff and the food service supervisor. OCDC’s Umatilla site worked with a nearby landowner who donated land use, as well as volunteer master gardeners and community-donated supplies, to build a community garden that everyone can enjoy. Despite size limitations or other challenges, each garden adds immense value to the program, and gardening is still a priority for OCDC’s staff and families.

Buy Food Locally

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers resources that can help Head Start programs find new, healthy sources of foods for meals and snacks. Procuring Local Foods for Child Nutrition Programs Guide helps programs find and secure locally grown and produced food. It has information vital to a successful, open, fair, and competitive process.

Farm to Preschool is a natural extension of the farm-to-school model. It works to connect early childhood programs to local food producers. Its objectives are to serve locally grown, healthy foods to young children, improve child nutrition, and offer related educational opportunities. Farm to Preschool offers many types of support for moving your program in this direction. It offers webinars, links to free curricula, gardening resources, family-education resources, and grant opportunities.