The Early Sprouts Program promotes learning among teachers, preschool-age children and their families using a “seed to table” approach. Specifically, this program is a research-based nutrition and gardening curriculum that gives children experience in planting, harvesting and preparing their own food. Holistically, however, it is a community-based model for creating positive change.
Dr. Karrie Kalich, a registered dietitian and an associate professor at Keene State College (KSC), is the Primary Investigator for the Early Sprouts program. She led the development of this 24-week preschool curriculum and helped write the book, Early Sprouts: Gardening and Nutrition Experiences for the Young Child, used in local child care centers such as the Keene State College Child Development Center (CDC) and five afterschool programs.
The Early Sprouts Program uses raised organic garden beds, sensory experiences, and cooking lessons focused on six target vegetables to:
- Increase young children’s food preferences for and consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy products.
- Promote school and family-based dietary changes.
- Reduce the risks and issues associated with childhood overweight and obesity.
The seeds for Early Sprouts were nourished as Karrie worked at Linden Tree Farm & CSA during graduate school. Her past connections and passion for local food and her interest in promoting behavior change contributed to the program’s development, as did collaborations with KSC students; faculty from the KSC nutrition and education departments; and the Head Start Centers of Southwestern Community Services.
Karrie’s vision came to life thanks to a Home Depot Youth Gardening Grant to build raised bed gardens at the KSC CDC. Initial funding also came from the MacMillan Company in Keene.
In the Spring of 2006, the Early Sprouts program flourished into eight raised garden beds on the CDC’s playground.
Up and Running
Early Sprouts is now used in many preschools and spans the school year. Training and support for classroom teachers and family outreach is a component of the program.
In the 2008-09 school year, six Head Start Centers in New Hampshire as well as the Children’s Learning Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, Lily Garden Learning Center and the University of New Hampshire Child Study and Development Center used the Early Sprouts program.
At the start of each week, a vegetable is explored using all the children’s senses. The students prepare a recipe together using the week’s vegetable and at the end of the week, take home a recipe kit to reinforce their learning with their family.
“We send home family recipe kits to extend the experience into the home. The kits include all of the ingredients needed to prepare the recipe,” Kalich shared.
Families are kept engaged not only through the family recipe kits but with regular newsletter articles from Early Sprouts. Families are also invited to join their children in planting the garden, participating in class activities, and attending special events such as the “stone soup” luncheon and the butternut squash pancake breakfast.
Initially, Karrie’s favorite part of the program was gardening with the kids. Now that joy has expanded to presenting with classroom teachers at regional, national and international conferences where they have the opportunity to share their Early Sprouts experience and educate their peers.
The Early Sprouts Program is now recognized nationwide as a model community program. In 2008, the program received the Surgeon General’s “Healthy Youth for a Healthy Future” Champion Award. The Champion Award highlights prevention programs that form partnerships and help kids stay active, adopt healthy eating habits, and promote healthy choices. In 2009, Kalich was presented with the “Mary Abbott Hess Award for an Innovative Food & Culinary Effort” from the American Dietetic Association.
Hurdles to Overcome
One of the unexpected challenges that Early Sprouts teachers met were school fire codes—cooking was not allowed in some of the classrooms. For a curriculum that includes cooking in the classroom this is a major hurdle to work through before the program is implemented.
Planning for the Future
The Early Sprouts program is dynamic and continually evolves thanks to teacher feedback. It is expanding beyond the school day to after-school programs in Troy, Gilsum, Winchester, Hinsdale and Westminster, VT to work with elementary school-aged children. This is a partnership between Keene State College and the after-school programs and is implemented with current after-school funding. AmeriCorps Health & Wellness VISTA Members are an integral part of this partnership.
To date, Early Sprouts has offered four trainings at local after-school programs. After-school programs are proving to be an ideal fit for Early Sprouts—as after-school programs are looking for wellness-based best practice initiatives. They also have the time to devote to this type of program.
Kalich is hoping to incorporate more cultural diversity into the curriculum and work more with UNH Cooperative Extension. Another important goal is finding a “real” gardener to join the Early Sprouts team.
Advice for Other Schools/Projects
Kalich shares: Have a plan with how to deal with division of roles, training, and maintaining the raised beds.