Connecting Farms and Our Youngest Children

In September, state officials launched a new program called "No Kid Hungry" to provide federally funded school breakfasts to more children in North Carolina. This effort to fight childhood hunger is now being tested in 28 schools across the state, including one in Durham.

It's a great start toward providing quality nutrition to low-income children. But because early eating habits impact weight gain and health issues across a child's life, the need for healthy meals starts much earlier than grade school.

North Carolina has the 11th-highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation, and about 30 percent of children under the age of 5 in the state are overweight or obese. This puts these children at a higher risk of developing asthma, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. The stigma of obesity also means these children are more likely to face bullying and teasing and have higher rates of depression.

These consequences not only hurt a child's well-being. They eventually impact an entire community through higher health care costs, poorer school performance and reduced worker productivity.

It doesn't need to be this way. There are many approaches designed to reduce obesity among the youngest children by helping them adopt healthy eating habits and get proper nutrition.

Earlier this year, the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, through its nonpartisan N.C. Family Impact Seminar, met with members of the legislature to discuss a variety of policies being pursued here and in other states to improve preschoolers' nutrition levels and prevent or reduce childhood obesity. Two areas that could have a strong, positive impact are the further expansion of the farm-to-preschool movement and the implementation of new state child care nutrition regulations.

The farm-to-preschool movement brings fresh, nutritious foods from local farms to children in nearby preschools and child care centers. Research has shown that children in North Carolina preschools don't eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, contributing to higher obesity rates. By targeting meals served in those settings, there is potential to significantly improve child health.

Last year about 240,000 North Carolina children under age 5 were enrolled in some form of child care. Most of these children eat at least two meals or snacks a day in the centers; increasing the nutritional levels of foods and beverages served in child care centers could substantially enrich each child's diet overall.

Farm-to-preschool programs also ensure that children try a range of nutritious fruits and vegetables, while learning about how food is grown. The programs also help to guarantee the sustainability of local farms.

North Carolina is home to two programs that could be replicated elsewhere. Growing Minds, created by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, acts as a facilitator between farms and pre-K-12 schools to increase education about agriculture and healthy nutrition, and to bring produce into schools. Watch Me Grow is a gardening program created by Duke that works with child care centers to establish gardens for their own use and helps centers find healthy, low-cost sources of food. Child care centers that participate in the Watch Me Grow program use the produce from their gardens to provide an additional serving of vegetables to children each day.

We can support these programs, and help create new ones, by changing state regulations and subsidies governing child care meals. We don't want to add burdensome requirements for child care, but rather encourage healthy practices and reward those programs that provide healthy nutrition for our children. For instance, by subsidizing the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables, we can shift child care centers from buying juice (with high levels of natural sugar) to buying fresh produce.

Helping connect farms with nearby preschools and child care centers forms the kinds of relationships that will benefit us all - children, families, communities and local farmers.

Maeve E. Gearing is a doctoral candidate in Public Policy at the Sanford School and a Sulzberger/Levitan fellow at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. Sara Benjamin Neelon is an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at the Duke University Medical Center and Duke Global Health Institute. This commentary was first published in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.