by JoAnn Hayden, Food Program Area Coordinator, WEESSN Program Coach, and Amanda Bee, Farm to Early Care and Education Coordinator, The Parenting Place.

It has been a long-standing dream for Farm to Early Care and Education to explore ways for child care providers to share services in bulk purchasing of food for the children they serve. The year 2020 and a global pandemic magnified the need for fresh, local, and affordable options for meal services. Very early in the pandemic, child care providers struggled to find fresh produce. Many child care sites had to revert back to canned fruits and vegetables, meat, and protein alternatives that were in short supply. Frustrations in limits on items that could be purchased in stores literally had child care providers in tears because it was difficult to buy enough food at one time to keep meals going. It became a crisis, in that child care directors had to figure out new ways to keep little bellies full.  Sometimes that meant a meal with no fruits and veggies, heavy on carbohydrates, and low in nutrients.

In March of 2020, DPI issued the COVID-19 National Waiver to Allow Meal Pattern Flexibility for Child Nutrition Programs. This waiver was to accommodate disruptions in the food supply chain. When a provider applied for the waiver and credible foods were not available this waiver allowed the requirements to be relaxed. This meant that providers had flexibility in what foods could be served, and alleviated the stress of finding goods that were not available. We learned that sometimes filling empty bellies with boxed macaroni and cheese is as real as it gets and needs to be ok.  As this emergency unfolded, advocates for child care began to think of ways to ease the fear and frustrations of child care providers in serving healthy meals. We started to brainstorm ways to work together with our partners to start a shared services food purchasing model.

Wisconsin’s Early Education Shared Services Network (WEESSN)Logo: WEESSN, The Parenting Place, Text: Farm to ECE and The Parenting Place were approached by Kids Forward with an opportunity and funding through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to put together a pilot shared services bulk food purchasing project. Kelly Matthews and JoAnn Hayden from WEESSN and Amanda Bee from The Parenting Place began to collaborate and piece together a working plan. We narrowed our pilot down to six family child care sites in Monroe County, specifically in the Tomah and Sparta townships. These providers were surveyed on project interest, while we also connected with Tatum Evans from Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua. Fifth Season expressed great interest in being our vendor, with bulk options available for fresh produce, dairy products, meat, honey, and much more. Our biggest barrier was transportation and distribution of produce, which takes an incredible amount of time and patience. JoAnn became the distribution person and point of contact for all six sites. We developed an every other week schedule, where JoAnn would travel from her home to Viroqua and pick up boxes of produce. She would then travel to Sparta and Tomah and deliver the produce to each of the six family sites. On those days, Amanda (Farm to ECE Coordinator) would put together an educational email with ideas on how to use the produce, recipes, literacy connections, etc.

The pilot also provided each site with nylon cutting knives and wavy choppers, which made it safe for children to have a hand in preparing their own food. We connected produce to books around food and also provided copies of those, such as Blueberries for Sal and Eating the Alphabet. Sites were able to help children interact with a wide variety of foods, including brussels sprouts on the stalk, purple sweet potatoes, gold and red beets, pumpkins, edamame, yogurt, string cheese, grass-fed beef, frozen vegetable blends, and much more. The children were able to increase the new foods they had access to, and providers reported success in getting the kids involved in the kitchen.

The deliveries happened from October through December of 2020 and will continue in the spring of 2021. A survey recently went out to all six sites and we were thrilled by the responses.

One provider shared, “The children and I were always super excited when the tote arrived and could not wait to open it and find out what was inside. The kids have been growing their own food here for the last couple of years and they are very good at trying new things and comparing new foods to those they are familiar with.” “This project made my program feel special and honored.” another provider shared. “Understanding where food comes from, seeing it grow has value, and sharing experiences with the children helps create ownership and pride which hopefully one day they will share their passion as I have with them about gardening, nature, and simple pleasures. Thank you!”

This pilot was such a success that providers want to stay involved and are willing to invest their time and money into keeping it going.  WEESSN and The Parenting Place hope to continue and grow this partnership and provide support to providers across the state of Wisconsin. We have learned that shared services in bulk food purchasing is a valuable and necessary service for those caring for our littlest citizens. Offering a wide variety of foods at very young ages is critical in supporting a lifetime of healthy eating.

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