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March 5, 2019

Meagan Shedd: Growing healthy eaters

March 6, 2019

Meagan Shedd is an assistant professor for Farm to Early Care and K-12 Education in the MSU Center for Regional Food Systems.

Her voice bellows to the other small children across the landscape of the nature-based playground. Her classmates kick at dirt and hop across stumps. With a wide sweep of her arm, she urges them to come and try her McDonald’s hamburgers.

Other children are digging with sticks or running from one tree trunk to another. She has tethered herself to the iron railing next to the door, her elbow looping her in place. In what I can only guess is an attempt to retain shade in the oppressive heat that has already found us this July morning, her body swings back and forth. She looks up at me with warm brown eyes and hollers out again, “Come get your hamburgers. McDonald’s hamburgers!”

I look back at her thinking carefully about the irony of her words compared to the purpose of our visit. My colleague and I head back inside with our guide to continue our tour to the back of the building where the garden space is waiting for us.

Our tour guide from the early care and education site leads us through the building and down hallways, beyond classroom spaces filled with the voices of small children going about their days. It is impossible for me to not glance beyond the doorways, which display the careful work of children and documentation of the learning facilitated by their educators. Our guide notices and pauses. She explains what takes place inside each classroom and the connection between today’s visit and the integration of this work inside each of these rooms.

We traverse the vast expanse of land waiting for a garden to be carved out of the grass. The Food Corps volunteer explains how the childcare center has engaged in a detailed process to obtain input about where the raised beds should be and what to plant. He also explains the process to get feedback to make sure the garden would connect to classrooms, the kitchen and the community.

As we walk, we talk about how children need to consume healthy food to mitigate the effects of lead exposure in this community. The water crisis is still evident throughout our visit: water bottles outside classroom doors, discussion of the need for raised beds and soil testing and the careful consideration of using rain barrels as a water source for the gardens.

Our group talks about the need for children to consume healthy food, both to address the effects of lead and as opportunity to learn about food — how to plant and grow fresh food, the importance of a balanced and healthy diet and integrating the concept of healthy lifestyles across early care and education learning domains with an emphasis on involving families.

Recent findings from the National Farm to Early Care and Education Provider Survey suggest that one third of early care and education, or ECE, settings engaged in farm to ECE have been involved for more than five years. National data indicates the top motivating factors for doing so are: to educate children about locally grown food, how food grows and/or where it comes from; planting or working with children in an edible garden at the site; and serving locally grown food in meals, snacks or taste tests. In Michigan, teaching children where food comes from and improving children’s health were the top motivating factors.

Based on the discussions and observations, what is happening each day at this early care and education site parallels what research uncovered taking place across the nation. The challenge now is to capitalize on what the data suggests — matching motivation with opportunity.

Farm to ECE momentum is increasing. Early care and education providers are creating innovative ways to integrate gardening, experiential learning and procurement practices of local foods into their settings. There are also ongoing challenges, like cost. These challenges identified in the national survey are not new, but are not simply housed in early care and education. Instead, they reach across multiple systems. This deserves a different and thoughtful conversation.

As I look at the survey data, I’m transported by the memory of a sculpture we saw during our visit that day. Suspended from the ceiling, a spectacular array of multi-colored something rained colors across the floor. I stopped, transfixed by the hues striking the window. It was nearly as long as I am tall and at least the width of my shoulders.

It was not until I was directly underneath that I realized the origin of the medium. I stepped back slightly as my colleague explained. The sculpture was a delicate construction of painted bottoms of water bottles emptied of their contents by the children enrolled at the childcare center.

What seemed so simple was in fact a complex array that required my careful attention and deliberate reflection.

To do anything in early care and education, and particularly to care for the health and well-being of young children, requires more than a “first glance.”

Come and get it.