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Washington State Prioritizes Healthier Standards in Early Learning Settings

The way Vic Colman sees it, health is in all places—everywhere we live, learn, work, and play—so it should be in all policymaking as well. Especially when it comes to kids.

Colman directs the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition, which, with a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, has partnered with Washington’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) to update and align licensing requirements for family home and center-based early learning settings to better prioritize children’s health. The Coalition’s hard work paid off; today, thanks to stronger requirements, those early care providers will serve kids healthier meals, get them moving more, and limit their screen time. In Washington, where nearly 5,800 licensed early care providers serve more than 166,000 children, that’s a lot of potential impact.

The Intersection of Early Learning and Health

“The Coalition’s work is an example of bringing a health lens to a non-health sector,” said Colman. “Health issues aren’t at the forefront of what early learning people think about, but that’s changing.”

It’s all about education. “That’s the big battle we fight every day,” Colman said.

Changing social norms have helped too. Thanks in part to national and local efforts, from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to Seattle’s successful sugary drinks tax, early learning providers increasingly have been inspired to address health in their own work. When the DCYF asked for public comment on its proposed standards alignment, the Coalition and its partners urged the DCYF to raise standards for nutrition, physical activity, and screen time, and offered the DCYF technical input showing exactly which proposed standards could be strengthened to meet national benchmarks.

“When we shared that with the director of licensing, she said we made a great case,” Colman said. “It helped the agency buy into our approach.”

Raising the Bar for Health

Adrienne Dorf, former manager of the Healthiest Next Generation initiative for the DCYF, said there’s also been a shift in how regulations are viewed.

“It used to be that regulations were called minimum health and safety standards,” she said. “They set a low bar, and when we urged them to raise the bar, we got pushback.”

That’s changed, thanks in part to advocacy work from the health community. Instead of merely accepting minimum standards, some regulatory agencies are doing more, including finding and adopting best practices and meeting national health and safety performance standards that improve child health.

The Coalition points to early care and education centers in Washington state that are going above and beyond the minimum standards to prove to the DCYF that healthy standards implementation is possible. 

For example, St. Anne’s Children and Family Center in Spokane, Washington, has had healthy practices for years, and now has a formal wellness policy that prohibits sugary drinks, has water readily accessible throughout the building, and serves vegetables at least twice per day. Center Director Deitra Miller credits her entire Center community for the success of the wellness policy implementation. While there were challenges to making sustainable changes, the policy is now widely accepted and celebrated by the 200+ students, their families, and the entire staff. 

Miller also credits local businesses, such as the LINC Foods co-op and farmers who help ensure young children are eating fresh and healthy local foods at an affordable cost. St. Anne’s Chef Karen is able to order fresh produce online from LINC Foods 50-member farmers, such as Urban Eden Farms. Other centers in Spokane, including Head Start and Early Head Start centers, use LINC Foods as well to ensure their kids are eating sustainably grown foods as part of the city’s growing “farm-to-early care and education (ECE)” movement. 

Due to evidence of success like at St. Anne’s and a lot of hard work of the Coalition, the Department accepted most of the Coalition’s recommendations, including these significant requirements, which took effect on Aug. 1, 2019:

  • One snack per day provided at an early learning program must include a fruit or vegetable. Flavored milk or sugar-sweetened beverages are prohibited, and water must be readily available.
  • There must be defined periods of time for moderate and vigorous physical activity, including time outdoors and a mix of activities.
  • Screen time for kids 2 years and older is limited to 2.5 hours per week and intentional screen time for kids under 2 is prohibited.
  • Breastfeeding mothers must be accommodated and supported.

Both Colman and Dorf said that early learning providers will need education and support to implement the new requirements properly. According to Dorf, online and in-person training will be available to providers, but that alone won’t do the job.

St. Anne’s administration agrees. One member of the Coalition, the Spokane Regional Health Department’s, offers a free training, called Cooks Connection, for child care providers each quarter focused on preparing whole foods. Experienced chefs, like Chef Karen, provide in-person training to other early care and education cooks. Chef Karen has taught them how to cut fresh produce in ways that eliminate choking hazards, cook from scratch, cook to accommodate food allergies, and more. In 2016 alone, 58 child care cooks were trained through Cooks Connection, and 33 percent of cooks attended more than one training.

“Healthy food can be more expensive and can take more time to prepare,” Dorf noted. “We need to find ways to decrease costs for providers so that they can serve healthy food.”

For example, increasing enrollment in the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food program could help fund purchase of healthier foods in early learning settings.

Colman believes the Department of Children, Youth, and Families is committed to making the new requirements work for everyone, just as they are with St. Anne’s. “This is a very impactful victory,” he said. “It will influence a lot of kids by setting new norms for how we can support health in early learning settings.”