Homegrown Ideas for Healthy Kids
Updated Classics: A Farm to School Program Adapted for Younger Palates
Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative
Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation
Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative; Decorah, Iowa
An agricultural state, with many communities dependent on farming, Iowa is not usually associated with hunger. In the state’s six Northeast counties, however, poverty and food insecurity affect more than a quarter of the population. According to a Community Health Needs Assessment, 32 percent of the region’s residents live at or below 200 percent of the poverty line, and 40 percent of children live at or below 100 percent of the poverty line. Most adult residents do not consume the recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables or partake in any form of exercise, and 31 percent are obese.
In response, 10 years ago community members, supported by the University of Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, launched the Northeast Iowa Food & Fitness Initiative (NEIF&F) to create healthy and thriving places for children. It focused on three aims: 1) establish supportive school district policies, 2) ensure local, healthy food is available and affordable, and 3) encourage people to use the built environment for activity and active transportation. Eight years in, with positive impact documented, NEIF&F expanded its focus. Rather than target kids as they entered K-12 with already-established unhealthy habits, NEIF&F wanted to catch them before they arrived in the school system by targeting children zero to five years of age with farm to ECE programs. It wanted to tap into an already-existing network of support for particularly vulnerable children by focusing on Head Start sites.
Unlike some of the other partnerships high- lighted in this case study, NEIF&F already had institutions, infrastructure, and experience in launching and expanding farm to school programs. Rather than build out a new infrastructure to target Head Start populations, it focused on hiring a single impassioned and experienced coordinator to leverage existing networks and build new relationships with the early childcare communities. Haleisa Johnson was that person, and she was instrumental in building those alliances across six counties and creating a culture of safety, experimentation, and learning for ECE centers that were unfamiliar with or resistant to adopting a new program. Lesson one of the Iowa experience, then, is that where a previous infrastructure and knowledge culture exists in K-12, partners can leverage information and networks to build out needed capacity for early childcare centers.
Similarly, instead of creating a whole new product for ECE, NEIF&F began by adapting the K-12 model to younger students. The curriculum was adjusted for earlier developmental stages, but the basic model of teaching one lesson on food per week was retained. It was a simple strategy, and one that could be relatively easily rolled out. Parents were engaged in a deeper way with Early Head Start home visits to reinforce messages about the importance of wellness and health at the earliest stages of child development. NEIF&F also offered grocery store visits where parents—many who themselves were raised on convenience food—learned how to shop and budget for healthier home cooking.
Johnson also engaged the frontline of the program: teachers. Understanding that many had initial resistance to adding another responsibility to their already-burdened workloads, Johnson persisted with engagement and support. She realized that teachers had to become role models themselves, not only teaching the curriculum, but also demonstrating healthy personal choices. She listened carefully to their concerns and developed strategies to ease the introduction of farm to ECE learning into their classrooms.
The success of NEIF&F is based on skillful and steady relationship-building, combined with a sensible strategy of introducing small, thoughtful adjustments for new
audiences and partners. It leveraged the proven outcomes of the local farm to school experience and innovated as necessary. NEIF&F is truly the story of an updated twist on a tried-and-true classic.