Bristol Little Chefs
Bristol Child Development Center is made up of two Early Childhood Education centers: one that serves infants through preschool and one that serves preschool-aged children. Educator Jo Lopez, with a background in preschool teaching, taught in a toddler classroom at the Child Development Center when COVID-19 first swept over the world. Jo, who had always sought out ways to involve her students’ families in her classroom, began to question how she could continue to connect parents and guardians to the classroom “in a way that [was] meaningful and intentional” without everyone needing to physically be inside the school. When Jo moved into the role of Education Coordinator she continued to prioritize ways to reach families, establish connections, and help her community feel support outside of the school.
Jo struggled with the lack of funding Early Childhood Education centers typically face, but when she read an email about the CT Grown for CT Kids (CTG4CTK) Grant, she saw an opportunity and had to seize it. Jo took the idea of meal subscriptions and worked with her husband, a professional chef, to develop the idea of bringing complete meal kits and cooking lessons to the children of the Child Development Center. Working alongside Maegan Adams, the director of both Bristol Child Development Centers, Little Chefs was created.
Little Chefs is a program where farmers and the school community provide nutritional education
to students through hands-on culinary experiences. Parents and/or guardians who are interested in the Little Chefs program fill out a pre-survey that assesses where their nutritional practice currently is and then are supplied with physical materials and online classes. Each month, the participating children are sent home from school with a Little Chefs kit, all packed in a reusable bag. The kit includes a folder that contains resources for local community gardens, farmer’s markets, and information on local farmers, plus a number of literacy support materials for parents, such as a board book about gardening, cooking, and farming with an accompanying reading guide. The kit also provides a Little Chefs Guide with an overview of all of the materials, a schedule of pre-recorded and always-accessible online classes, collectable recipe cards, and all of the tools and food the family will need to complete that month’s activity. Finally, the monthly kit sends home a $4 voucher for the children to use at the Bristol farmer’s market and a post-survey.
In a pre-program survey, Jo and Maegan discovered that the biggest hurdle families were facing when trying to eat fresh produce or shop locally was that they didn’t know how to cook or how to include the proper foods. This feedback helped Jo and Maegan really focus on what resources were needed for the families and discover the best way to deliver the resources. This type of ask-then-give processing is Jo’s biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to incorporate more farm/garden-to-school programming and hands-on outdoor learning in their schools or communities. “Ask the families what they want and what would most benefit them,” says Jo. “What do you need? How can I meet you where you are? What can I do to serve you?” Jo says that it all starts with simple and humble questions.
Once the questions were asked, and the answers were heard, Little Chefs began running, with 52 families participating in the first session and over 40 participating in the second. Then word and support began to spread. Jo and Maegan continue to work diligently to maintain the partnerships they’ve made through the program. They speak about Little Chefs with other early childhood centers, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and they have opened conversations with the City of Bristol to continue the program next year when the grant funding has ended. “There’s people who want to collaborate and there’s strength in numbers,” Jo shares. “My hope is that we’ll see this go to other centers and we’ll see this go to more families.” Jo attributes much of the program’s success to her community and to the farmers who have partnered with the Bristol Child Development Center to support the families with fresh food.
Jo exudes her love and passion for nutrition education and garden-to-school opportunities as
she details the biggest reward that she has seen come as a result of the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant funding: “Giving the children the opportunity to experience something as simple as making their own salad at home or going to the farmer’s market and buying stuff on their own, for themselves, that they want. Seeing those wheels turn and the ‘aha moments’ and the light bulbs go off as they’re doing the activities is worth every single effort.”
There are a multitude of ways to support food and farm-to-school education to grow within schools, Early Childhood Education centers, farm businesses, and other educational institutions. With the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant, a project or program can be funded and a team of school health and nutrition advocates can be built to support the continuous inclusion of health and farm to school themes in your community. Find out more about the grant at CTFarmToSchool.org, on the Connecticut Department of Agriculture website, and keep a lookout for the second round of the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant, coming this August.