Preschoolers learn healthy eating habits through grant-funded project

Preschoolers in several schools in Blaine County are learning about locally farmed fruits and vegetables in an effort to create long-term, healthier eating habits. The program, called Farm to Early Care and Education, or Farm to ECE, is funded by a state grant and has shown success since the program was launched in September.

Alleah Schweitzer, program coordinator for the Farm to ECE project, said the idea was born out of a need to address childhood obesity and diabetes. The program, linked to a nationwide effort, brings local food sources, school gardens, and food and agriculture education to preschool-age students while boosting the local economy. The goal of the program, which includes lesson plans, games, books and exercises featuring the harvest of the month, is to form healthy eating habits at a young age to hopefully have healthy eating habits for life.

“The early years of life are a critical stage,” Schweitzer said. “Healthy foods at an early age create a better foundation for future habits.”

According to a January 2019 report from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, 26 percent of Idaho children are overweight or obese. That number is based on a 2011-2012 report from the National Survey of Children’s Health of children ages 10-17. A more recent 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 11 percent of Idaho participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—WIC—ages 2-4 are obese and 14.5 percent are overweight. Nationally, 13.9 percent of WIC participants ages 2-4 were obese in 2016.

Obesity and overweight are based on body mass index from measured height and weight from the 2000 CDC growth chart, according to the CDC website.

Though Idaho is below the national average of 30 percent of overweight and obesity combined, the cost associated with being overweight or obese is high, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation mentioned in the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare report.

A 2012 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Trust for America’s Health Report estimated that Idaho spends more than $2.7 billion due to obesity and that those costs are projected to rise to more than $3 billion by 2030. The report estimated that a 5 percent decrease in obesity would save Idaho $1.2 billion by 2020 and $3.3 billion by 2030.

The grant, received from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare worth $73,000, provides funding for 10 sites in the South Central Public Health District to implement the Farm to ECE program targeted at 3- to 5-year-olds. In Blaine County, that funding went to Little River Preschool and Kids Kampus Preschool Daycare in Hailey and the Ernest Hemingway STEAM School in Ketchum. So far, since its implementation in September, the response has been positive, according to Schweitzer, with both educators and farmers excited along with parents and children.

Schweitzer said teachers have already seen positive changes from their students, with children being more open to trying new foods and finding their favorites, and an overall surprise around taste tests that have been going well. Taste tests in the classroom are followed up with updates to parents on what their children are finding tasty, along with recipes for cooking products that might be new to the whole family.

The taste tests are done three times a month, with children evaluating the produce with a survey after tasting—a sheet of paper with a smiley face and a frown face, with one to be circled depending on if they liked it or didn’t. Besides eating, children learn how the vegetable is grown, comparing sizes, colors and types and different ways to prepare it.

December’s harvest of the month will be potatoes, and January will be dried beans. The program concludes in May and by that time kids will have learned not only about different vegetables, but eating family-style, learning how to verbalize, ask and be patient, Schweitzer said.