When children are faced with trying a new, unfamiliar kind of food, their response is often a scrunched up face and a single word: “Eww.”

But thanks to a new initiative known as Farm to Child Care, kids in 20 child care programs throughout Becker, Clay, Otter Tail and Wilkin counties were exposed to a variety of fresh vegetables (and a few fruits) that they had never tried before - and the results were an unqualified success, according to several Becker County child care providers who signed up for the program this past summer.

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“It was just an awesome opportunity,” gushed Julie Zachariason of Lake Park, who provides child care services at her home for about a dozen kids, from 18 months old up through school age. “I just feel lucky to have had the chance to do this with the kids.”

“I think the goals were met,” added Mary Rotter, who along with her husband, Eric, owns Laker Prep Preschool and Early Childhood Center in Detroit Lakes. “It was a good opportunity to see what range of foods our kids were interested in and were willing to try.”

“It was always good, fresh stuff, very high quality,” said Heather Torgerson, who provides family child care services for approximately nine children, from toddler to school age. “I think (the program) did a really good job of exposing the kids to different kinds of vegetables.”

Offered through a collaboration between PartnerSHIP 4 Health and Child Care Aware of Minnesota Northwest, the Farm-to-Child Care initiative encouraged each participating child care program to offer local, fresh veggies to young children by conducting taste tests. In addition, providers were also encouraged to incorporate farm-to-child care and gardening themes into their routines and curriculum.

To help in their efforts, each provider received CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares from Bluebird Gardens in Fergus Falls, good for $150 in produce from the food cooperative, as well as a Nutrition Education Kit, which included recipes, storage and handling tips, activity suggestions, and tips for offering new foods. Participating child care providers connected with each other through a private Facebook Group, sharing ideas, recipes, and pictures with each other.

“I was in the habit of offering a lot of green beans, corn and peas… things I already knew they liked,” said Torgerson.

Through the Farm to Child Care program, she was able to offer her charges a much larger variety of foods. “We tried several different kinds of squash, beets, kohlrabi, zucchini… the kids really got a kick out of scrubbing and cleaning them, and if it was age appropriate, I would let them try cutting them up (for serving). I would even set out some samples for my parents to try. A couple of the parents really liked that.”

“We had zucchini, beets, a lot different squashes, onions and potatoes - we even had fresh sweet corn in October,” Zachariason said. “I feel like we’re just making our kids healthier, better eaters.

“Even though I have a garden, and we love our broccoli, cauliflower and cherry tomatoes, I wanted to expose my kids to some other good vegetables, too,” she added.

As an example, when a couple of her charges said they didn’t want to try zucchini, Zachariason served it up in zucchini bread and other recipes that made them change their minds.

Farm to Child Care program coordinator Krystle McNeal, a registered dietician who works with Child Care Aware “in the areas of nutrition and physical activity,” said that one of the incentives offered to the child care providers in return for their participation was the opportunity to get some good quality children’s books on gardening as well as cookbooks and other tools for making better use of fresh produce.

“It motivated me to think I can grow some of this stuff myself, maybe with a little help from the kids,” says Torgerson. “The folks at Bluebird were super nice, too. They let my daughter taste some of the vegetables, told her how to grow them. It would be fun to do a field trip there if the kids were a little older.”

“They were very nice,” Torgerson agreed. “They showed us all the different things they had and how much we could take of each. They had some really neat things, like kale. We made kale chips, tried some of it in a salad.”

“We tried lots of very new things - everything from cucumbers to cabbage and turnips and kale,” said Rotter. “We made turnip fries, kale chips, coleslaw (with the cabbage)... things I might not have thought to try otherwise, because we had those choices in front of us.”

Rotter also said she might consider having her charges help with creating a small garden next summer, “so they can watch the fruits of their labor as they grow.”

The goals of the Farm to Child Care initiative were to: 1) Expose young children (primarily 5 years and younger) to more local foods, and to: 2) Encourage child care providers and teachers to offer new foods and local foods more often.

According to data provided by PartnerSHIP 4 Health, approximately 296 children were impacted, and an average of four new veggies were offered at each child care program. Furthermore, 19 out of 20 participating providers stated they were more likely to offer farm fresh and new foods after participating in Farm-to-Child Care program.

“I did a post survey with the providers at end, and I think (the program) really met our goals of increasing their exposure to local foods and confidence in serving local foods to their kids,” said McNeal. “I would love to continue this program next year in some way, though I’m not sure it will look the same as it did in 2015. Overall, it was a very positive experience.”

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

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