When you think of Washington, you likely think of Seattle, known for its coastline, fresh seafood, and Mount Rainier. But five hours east of the city, over the Cascade Mountain range, lies Spokane, a rural part of the state that many of its residents describe as forward-thinking and tight-knit. The Spokane River cuts through a bustling downtown, surrounded by beautiful parks and rich farmland. Some farms are as close as Urban Eden, which lies in the Vinegar Flats neighborhood, just a 5-minute drive from the urban core, while dozens of others speckle the outer city lines in the Spokane Valley.
But no matter where you go in Spokane—to a school, early care and education (ECE) center, farm, or business—you’ll find a well-connected community that cares deeply about children’s health. And growing a local “farm-to-ECE” movement is one way this community is helping its kids grow up at a healthy weight.
Catholic Charities, through a grant from Food 4 All, is piloting the “farm-to-ECE” project at ECE centers, such as St. Anne’s Children and Family Center, and Head Start and Early Head Start centers, such as West Central Community Center Head Start/Early Head Start. Chefs and staff can order “picked-to-order” meat, vegetables, fruit, and dairy, ensuring kids are eating well and sales benefit local farmers.
Tarawyn Waters manages Urban Eden Farm’s 40 acres that include more than 150 kinds of plants, which they sell to LINC Foods, a 50-member farmer co-op; school districts and early care and education centers; and local restaurants.
For example, “Teacher Cooker Teresa,” as her students call her, has been a beloved cook and purchaser for Head Start/Early Head Start for more than 30 years and she orders from LINC. Teresa explained that she works from a five-week menu cycle that is seasonal and follows the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) guidelines. She regularly orders fresh produce for her menu using LINC Foods’ website. For example, if one of her menus includes carrots, instead of buying a frozen bag of carrots, she’ll order fresh ones from a farmer.
She delights in how her nearly 60 preschoolers react to the fruits and vegetables they’re offered. She noted that they love virtually all fresh fruits: apples, peaches, pears, and tomatoes–and are willing to try all kinds of new foods. “They absolutely love tomatoes and spring mix!”
“I really like the corn on the cob,” she recalls one preschooler telling her, so she encouraged him to ask his mom and dad to buy it from the market, as it was in season and offered at a particularly low price. Teresa also shares fresh produce donated by Catholic Charities Food 4 All to families so parents, caregivers, and siblings can try new foods, such as yellow plums, which are also a hit with the kids.
Dan Jackson of LINC Foods explained that his employee-owned company now does about $800,000 in sales per year. It started five years ago with two farmers. The model works because it benefits Spokane businesses, farmers, and the larger Spokane community. It gives farmers within a 250-mile radius and who have sustainable growing practices a stable channel to sell their produce. LINC takes the time to ask its customers what they would like to buy that year, and passes that information on to the farmers. This helps farmers feel secure that there’s demand for the produce they’re growing, ensuring money back in their pockets for their hard work. Dan said the most popular items that local restaurants, colleges, schools, and ECE centers buy are tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and apples, particularly the latter three as they have a long shelf-life.
Young kids at West Central Community Center Head Start/Early Head Start not only love “Teacher Cooker Teresa’s” selections from LINC Foods and local farms, but they also love fresh food right from their backyard! Through a grant from Catholic Charities, Teresa built two above-ground garden beds right on the playgrounds. During the summer, the kids love watching the vegetables grow and pulling their own tomatoes off the vine. The garden beds give her the chance to teach kids about how food is grown. “Kids as young as age 3 have snapped beans and shucked corn. They have a ball!”
If you head over to St. Anne’s Children and Family Center, two- to five-year-olds are participating in the same sorts of activities and are also eating seasonal produce. Kids and teachers regularly visit the Spokane Farmers Market, located just across the street, where the kids pick out produce for meals, snacks, and also classroom educational activities. After returning from the market, kids work with their teacher to name the colors of different kinds of squash, weigh them, and count seeds.
For breakfast and lunch, they enjoy delicious meals prepared by Chef Karen and Chef Alissa, who use the fresh produce from their on-site garden, farmers’ market, and LINC Foods as they whip up healthy meals from scratch. Always accounting for food allergies, they prepare meals, such as potato pancakes with fresh applesauce and a very popular yogurt made at Pure Eire Dairy farm for breakfast and jambalaya and grapes for lunch.
St. Anne’s Chefs are well-known not just with St. Anne’s families, students, and staff, but also within the Spokane community, as they participate in classes via Spokane Regional Health’s Cooks Connection, where fellow ECE chefs learn skills, such as chopping fresh vegetables sized to prevent choking and meal planning to accommodate allergens.
Everyone in Spokane—from these chefs to young kids and their families to educators and farmers—are energized and proud of the farm-to-ECE movement they’re spearheading. Their local economy is benefitting, and most importantly kids are growing up to be healthy residents of the vibrant city and surrounding valley.