Oregon’s Farm to Preschool Program

Ecotrust is a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon that works to build an economy benefiting people and nature. The Farm to School initiative is one of its key vehicles to build more resilient regional food economies.

In 2009, in partnership with the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC), Ecotrust piloted one of the first Farm to Preschool initiatives in the country. OCDC is one of the largest Early Care and Education (ECE) networks in Oregon, administering Head Start and Early Head Start, and is a state grantee of the federal Migrant Seasonal Head Start program. Each year, OCDC serves more than 3,000 children and families in need throughout 12 Oregon counties.

Ecotrust and the Farm to School Initiative

The Farm to School initiative is one of Ecotrust’s key vehicles to shift institutional purchasing practices and build more resilient regional food economies. In 2005, Ecotrust’s Farm to School initiative began promoting Farm to School programs at the K–12 level to positively influence the school food environment, increase children’s access to and consumption of healthy local foods, and stimulate new markets for regional food producers and processors.

As this work gained in popularity and started to become institutionalized at local, state and regional levels, Ecotrust used this momentum to engage in similar work with child care and early education facilities. The intention of this new work was to leverage and extend best practices learned in the K-12 program to children at a point in their development when fresh food and healthy eating habits have the greatest potential to positively impact the trajectory of their long-term health and productivity.

Farm to School Adopted for ECE and Head Start

In 2008–09, in partnership with the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC), Ecotrust piloted one of the first Farm to Preschool initiatives in the country.

This project aimed to:

1) Build relationships between Head Start and local food producers
2) Explore opportunities for local product development to meet Head Start meal program needs
3) Increase Head Start procurement of locally grown foods
4) Promote food- and garden-based education to reinforce locally grown foods served as part of the USDA meal program
5) Engage the community in implementing garden-enhanced educational programs
6) Increase children’s and caregivers’ exposure to and modeling of healthy lifestyle behaviors
7) Improve children’s and caregivers’ access to locally produced fruits and vegetables

Ecotrust partnered with Head Start for the pilot project for several reasons:

1) Head Start serves a vulnerable population.
2) Head start encourages parental involvement and engages parents both in their children’s learning and in the program administration, a critical component in helping to sustain Farm to School programming in the long-term.
3) Head Start uses experiential education models, which are a great fit with typical Farm to School activities such as garden-based education, sensory exploration and cooking
4) Head Start is a visible leader among ECE facilities, and thus an excellent model for child care delivery.

Initially, Ecotrust had difficulty getting the project underway. To generate interest and secure commitment from a partner administering Head Start in Oregon, Ecotrust created a request for proposals (RFP) with a small amount of funding attached. The RFP outlined the project’s objectives and activities, as well as partner roles.

Organization, Partners and Resources

Ecotrust worked with the Oregon Child Development Coalition (OCDC) to establish pilot Farm to School initiatives at three early care and education (ECE) sites in Cornelius (Washington County), Odell (Hood River County) and Silverton (Marion County).

Activities included:
1) facilitating Farm to School programs via meetings with the Nutrition Services director and the lead Education Specialist and by inviting OCDC staff participation in Farm to School conferences and events
2) evaluating current meals and menu planning tools and facilitating conversations about local procurement with OCDC’s current wholesaler
3) facilitating field trips to regional farms
4) promoting food- and garden-based education by identifying existing resources and curricular activities to support the inclusion of garden-based education into Head Start program areas

Ecotrust identified five existing food- and garden-based education resources for preschoolers for OCDC’s review. OCDC selected the curriculum “Early Sprouts: Gardening and Nutrition Experiences for the Young Child” as the best fit for their educational requirements. It addresses young children’s inherent fear of new foods through multiple exposures to target fruits and vegetables in activities such as sensory exploration, tasting sessions, cooking activities and family recipe kits.

When the pilot project culminated, spurred by success implementing simple garden-based activities in the classroom, OCDC forged ahead, constructing raised beds at each pilot site to support garden-based education and increase the ability of students, teachers and parents to make the connection between food they eat and the land it comes from. OCDC has continued to move forward with its work, installing more gardens and continuing to purchase directly from local farmers.

Along with its partners, Ecotrust has engaged a national community of practice around Farm to Preschool, helped launch a national website, conducted a national survey of Farm to Preschool programs and publishes an Ecotrust-based monthly Farm to Preschool e-news (Taking Root). Ecotrust is currently working to grow Farm to Preschool programs at ECE facilities in the region via the online tool FoodHub and via an Oregon Farm to Preschool Coalition.

Lessons Learned

  • Farm to Preschool differs significantly from Farm to School in the K–12 setting given that it must address many diverse models of child care.


  • Farm to Preschool presents a huge opportunity. There is significant and growing interest from communities and parents, and logistically, ECE facilities may be easier to work with than K–12 schools (e.g., higher budgets, fewer regulations, more parental involvement, greater flexibility with programming, more likely to have kitchens).


  • Project documentation and evaluation are critical, both in terms of collecting evidence on the impacts of programming as well as sharing models of success.


  • If securing a commitment from potential partners is a challenge, consider issuing a formal RFP with some funding attached.


  • Do not underestimate the impact of a small financial investment (in this case, a few thousand dollars) and some hands-on facilitation with partners (e.g., sitting with food service staff and looking through menus, taking field trips to local farms).


  • Meet partners where they are and see what they need to move forward. Be flexible with program design and activities.


  • Explore where Farm to School and school garden concepts will fit most naturally into pre-existing programs (e.g., OCDC used one curriculum that was a natural fit because it required instruction about nutrition twice per week).


  • Ensure that program design and materials are culturally relevant (e.g., OCDC created Spanish translations of many of the materials they used for garden-based education).


  • Consider the different ways to engage community partners and the many resources that may be tapped to maximize program implementation (e.g., OCDC hired an AmeriCorps member to sustain their gardens after the pilot project ended).