Increasing Access to Healthy Environments in the Early Childcare Setting: San Juan Basin Health’s Partnership with Tri-County Head Start

By: Sloan Gingg, MPH, SJBHD Grants Coordinator

Research shows that reaching children at a young age improves their chances of embracing healthy messages and behaviors for a lifetime. Early childcare education has been established as a critical strategy in the fight against childhood obesity and other chronic diseases and provides the opportunity to shape healthy behaviors through education.  As part of our chronic disease-prevention grant through the National WIC Association’s Community Partnerships for Healthy Mothers and Children (CPHMC) Project, San Juan Basin Health (SJBH) is partnering with Tri-County Head Start to sponsor the implementation of an evidence-based coordinated school health curriculum. Tri-County Head Start stood out as an obvious partner; Head Start programs are income-based and all children and families are automatically income-eligible for WIC, so working with Tri-County Head Start enables us to reach our target population of low-income children and families. The partnership we’ve established is multifaceted and has led to implementation of four main efforts to increase access to, and education about, healthy foods among Head Start students and families. 

During the summer months, SJBH partnered with the Garden Project of Southwest Colorado to implement a free, weekly farm stand called Manna Market. Due to an excess of produce and our existing partnership with Tri-County Head Start, we were able to facilitate the initiation of an additional free farm stand on-site at Roberta Shirley Center (RSC) Head Start (the only center that meets throughout the summer months). Produce at both markets was locally-grown, either from local community gardens or donated by farmers and producers. The two farm stands combined served roughly 400 people (not including repeat visitors) and an estimated 6,000 pounds of produce was given to food-insecure families. The Manna Market became a hub for them to learn about food assistance services and programs in our community, including Cooking Matters, WIC, SNAP, and Double Up Food Bucks. In addition to the free farm stand that provided fresh, local produce to Head Start children and families, we also provided recipe cards for dishes incorporating food available at the farm stand. We were able to tailor the recipes throughout the season, so families always had access to information and ways to use each food we had on hand. “We’re excited to partner with SJBH and The Garden Project to provide families with more opportunities to be exposed to healthy food,” said Tri-County Head Start Health and Safety Manager, Amber Beye. “Families and teachers at RSC are excited about this opportunity.” 

To introduce healthy foods in the classroom, we were able to partner with a local registered dietician to provide each center under Tri-County Head Start with a laminated, bound booklet of twelve “Food of the Month” lessons. The lessons include images of the fruit or vegetable, the plant it comes from, and prompt teachers to run through a few fun questions with the kids (i.e. is it crunchy? Is it sweet?). The lessons incorporate as many farm-to-preschool foods as possible, and provide the kiddos with more opportunities to try new, healthy foods, and learn about where the foods come from. 

Although we are excited about the farm stand and monthly taste test lessons, we wanted to help Tri-County Head Start implement comprehensive, sustainable changes. Fortunately, the curriculum director was interested in incorporating healthy messages into everyday programming. We were able to suggest and sponsor staff training and implementation of an evidence-based coordinated school health curriculum, CATCH (Coordinated Approach to Child Health) Early Childhood (CEC). Staff from five Tri-County Head Start sites began implementing CEC in October 2016. CEC is designed to nurture a love of physical activity, provide introduction to classroom-based gardening and nutrition, and encourage healthy eating in children. The curriculum was developed in a way that meets Federal Head Start academic guidelines, and provides nine nutrition-based and ten gardening-based lessons to encourage healthy eating behaviors, as well as over 400 activity cards with music aimed at promoting physical activity. We used CPHMC grant funds to purchase CEC and host a comprehensive training for Tri-County Head Start educators and administrators. Although the centers have only recently begun to use the curriculum, initial feedback has been very positive!

Finally, we are also working with the Garden Project of Southwest Colorado and Healthy Community Food Systems to establish small preschool gardens in three Head Start locations in La Plata and Archuleta Counties. The preschool gardens that we’ll establish at three Head Start locations will be raised beds and/or container gardens and will supplement the implementation of CATCH Early Childhood. The new gardens will make the project more comprehensive and more likely to be successful in increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables   (and ultimately reducing chronic disease). SJBH is working to establish internal garden coordinators – either on-site staff or passionate parents – to ensure the gardens will be cared for and sustained beyond the timeline of this project. 

We are very excited about the strong partnership we’ve developed with Tri-County Head Start and foresee us working together in myriad ways moving forward. The combined effect of all initiatives stemming from our partnership – free farm stand, taste test lessons, implementation of CATCH Early Childhood, and new school gardens – has no doubt lead to increased access to and education about healthy foods, and should have the long-term effect of reducing risk of chronic disease. We’re looking forward to seeing the fruits of this partnership grow and evolve.