Stepping Stones Museum for Children, located in Norwalk, CT, is an interactive museum experience that allows children to learn through play, active inquiry, and investigation. The Norwalk museum, along with the exhibits, includes two Early Language and Literacy Initiative (ELLI) Classrooms, where 28 children, between 18 months to 5 years old, receive a year-round education designed to improve school readiness and close the achievement gap. The museum is also home to the Healthyville Cafe, which serves the visiting museum community, and gives the families of the ELLI classrooms an option of purchasing lunch for the children on-site. It is through this cafe, with the incredible kitchen, museum, and teaching staff, that the CT Grown for CT Kids Grant is able to work its magic.
Prior to the grant, the Healthyville Cafe and ELLI Classrooms were able to engage in farm-to-school learning through the museum’s Edible Garden, which is a part of the museum’s Healthy Children, Healthy Communities Initiative. The Healthyville Cafe also has established relationships with local farmers, such as Siverman’s Farm and Shaggy Coos Farm, where they are able to source dairy and organic produce options for use in the kitchen. With such a solid base in farm-to-school engagement, the CTG4CTK Grant funding will support a brand new opportunity for Stepping Stones to dive deeper into working with local farms, encouraging nutrition and food-systems conversations in the classrooms, and giving the students the opportunity to mindfully experience food.
Twice per month, the grant funding helps in the procurement of locally grown produce and lunch ingredients, which are then offered to the children in the ELLI classrooms, free of charge. Each meal is partnered with curriculum units, created in collaboration with the teachers of the ELLI classrooms, to help the children not only digest the food, but break down what it means to eat food that makes the body feel good and know where that food comes from. Examples of the curriculum-to-come include how to create a healthy food system, fall harvests, winter vegetables and farming preparation, food waste and composting, pollination, and food literacy. So far, the teachers have been able to watch their students expand their food knowledge and bravery around trying new or different foods. Museum Senior Director, Scot Sedley, mused on the connections happening in the classrooms: “The experience of being in the room with the kids as they were eating new foods, and seeing their minds open and their horizons open…just seeing the joy there is one of the more positive experiences in recent months.”
Scot, the teachers, and the chef and kitchen staff of the Healthyville Cafe are all excited about the Stepping Stones Museum’s future engagement in farm-to-school education and the opportunities to incorporate more hands-on learning outside of the building. With the museum’s Healthy Children, Healthy Communities Initiative, there is a wide net of funding to incorporate into the Healthville Cafe and the ELLI classrooms. The CT Grown for CT Kids Grant was a natural addition to what is already being shared with the students. Because the CTG4CTK Grant was able to support the development of a year-round food and gardening curriculum, the same teachings can be adapted and reused down the line. Hopefully all of the work being done now will allow the Stepping Stones Museum to naturally weave family engagement, farmer and farm visits, and potentially cooking classes with the Cafe chef into the ELLI classrooms. A consensus among the ELLI teachers and team is that successful farm-to-school programming and hands-on learning does not need to start out huge, with a feast every day. Success is incorporating one item in one snack, having conversations about food, and finding natural engagement in the exploration of food on each child’s level.
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 September.