In early childhood centers, food education is hands-on

The children at A&W Daycare, just east of the Warrendale neighborhood of Detroit, get their hands dirty harvesting tomatoes, kale, asparagus, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash and more in two onsite gardens – a hoophouse garden, and another outdoors.

“We want the children to learn how things grow, and let them know everything we eat is growable,” says Al Macki, who has worked as the daycare’s handyman for 23 years, alongside his wife Ameera, the center’s owner.Hoophouses help extend growing seasons for early childhood centers.

On any given day, you might see them seed, plant or water food later served for breakfast, lunch and snacks at the center. Impressive considering their ages: While some of the children attend the center’s five and under childcare program, others participate in Early Head Start (ages 0-3) and Great Start Readiness for 4-year-olds. Both programs, which help children from economically disadvantaged families prepare for grade school academics and beyond, have partnerships with the center.

“Whatever we harvest from the garden, we eat in the childcare center,” Macki says. “Kids make a connection to the stuff they grow.” While the Mackis are sensitive to time- and income-stressed parents who often rely on convenience foods for their children, “we are trying to get the point across that there are better foods out there. [Here], the children are always eating something fresh.”

Time and income

Time and income do affect food choices, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “When incomes drop and family budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper but more energy-dense foods,” notes an online report; healthier foods such as fruits, vegetables and high-quality proteins are often the first eliminated. “Time poverty presents an additional problem. Decades ago, many American households included at least one person with sufficient time to shop for and prepare meals from scratch,” a lifestyle that’s often challenging for working and low-income parents, particularly single parents.

But educating children and their parents about healthful foods is still achievable, the Mackis believe. And the hands-on approach seems to illustrate the possibilities, especially after the mini-gardeners reap the rewards, like stew the center’s full-time cook makes with meat, and vegetables from the garden.

How did the program start?

Keep Growing Detroit, a non-profit that encourages the growth of fruits and vegetables in the city, “told us everything we needed to know to get started,” Macki says, including tips on age-appropriate, food-related activities such as seasonal gardening tips and tasting activities. They were also alerted to the MI Farm to School Grant Program, administered by Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems.

After applying, they received three different mini-grants for a three-year period: 2014-2017. One grant was used to purchase a commercial vacuum sealer to extend the life of the food. “After we seal the food, we put it in the freezer. It lasts all year ‘round.” The other two grants were used to purchase kitchen and gardening equipment.

A&W Daycare's hoophouse was built with funds from a benefactor.

The 60-by-90-foot hoophouse, donated by a benefactor “for the purpose of using it at the childcare center,” Macki says, is where the children harvest spinach from beginning to end. After planting the seeds, “it takes approximately six to eight weeks for the seeds to start coming up. Growing is a good three-month project. We should have spinach by February.”

Garlic, on the other hand, grown outdoors, takes a year, Macki adds. “The kids take a piece of garlic, put it in the ground [in the upright position], cover it with straw and leave it like that all the way to next year.”

Leelanau Children’s Center

The children at Leelanau Children’s Center, which provides toddler and preschool programs in Leland, Michigan, also witness food “from beginning to end,” says the school’s program director, Molly Grosvenor. They might pick strawberries in the school’s garden, peel carrots to be served at lunch, or help out with compost buckets in the classroom.

“We’ve had a food program since the early 1980s,” Grosvenor continues. But a 2018 MI Farm to School Grant changed the way “we were able to access more local food and use mostly Michigan-based food programs.” That meant the possibility of buying food from a local farmer’s market and other nearby food sources. The change is important, Grosvenor notes, because it reinforces the need to “support our local community and economy. We are healthier when we know where the food is coming from.”

The presentation of different foods in the classroom, including fruits and vegetables from a local farmer, influences their relationship with food, says Grosvenor. “It’s an educational opportunity to see how the food is prepared and where it comes from. I think we are helping set the stage … for them to become healthy [and informed] consumers of food.”

The children are having an impact on their families, too, with lessons carried “into their homes a little more.” When they do eat in the classroom, “we eat all of our meals family style, so the kids are serving themselves, with the adults out there with them. [They learn about] healthy portions, what the different foods are, what they are doing for our body and how the cooks made the food. It’s a whole different understanding of what food is other than having it be instant.”

Involving the whole family

At A&W Daycare, parents are a very important part of the food program. The Mackis make sure to involve them with meetings, newsletters and visual examples around the classroom such as the tomato seeds sown in cups, which are easy to duplicate at home. “We say, ‘you can grow these in your house’,” Macki says.

Meal time can be a special time for learning.

They even have an open door policy where parents can come in and eat with the children “any time they want. We recommend that. We want everyone to bond with each other. That’s the time to do it, to eat without the phone and the distractions. It’s just a time to sit down and talk with each other, to see all that’s going on.”

And the kids? “While some are too young to understand, most of them love the idea and take pride in their [work],” achieving the program’s main goal, “a predisposition toward healthy eating,” Macki adds.

“The real investment is with the children – learning exactly where food is coming from.”

Hand-on learning helps children share with their families a love for good food.

This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Pam Houghton started her freelance career with essays in local parenting and lifestyle magazines. Over time, she transitioned to freelance-story writing on topics ranging from health, parenting and business to employment and technology. She also works in higher education, as an editor/writer/administrator of print and digital advertising.

Photos by Steve Koss
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