Farm-to-Childcare in North Carolina; A Holistic Case Study

Final report for GS15-140

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2015: $10,636.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2017
Grant Recipient: North Carolina State University
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Graduate Student:
Major Professor:
Dr. J. Dara Bloom
NC State University
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Project Information


The purpose of this project was to understand the barriers and opportunities for small, diversified fruit and vegetable farmers to sell to low-income child care centers in an urban county in North Carolina. We conducted a social science qualitative case study to examine supply chain actors’ perceptions and motivations for participation in a farm to child care program. Analyzing 11 childcare centers’, 11 farmers’ and four distributors’ perceptions showed parallel values for children’s health and community connections. While child care centers valued direct relationships with farmers and expected them to participate in educational activities, financial constraints (including low volume purchases and decentralized distribution) ultimately affected the ability of farmers to participate in direct marketing relationships with child care centers. In addition, farmers who did not have an educational mission did not feel that they had time to meet the additional requests of child care centers. Non-profit food hubs provided the sense of connectivity that child care centers sought as well as the infrastructure to meet volume and delivery needs, but were only able to survive due to subsidization from grant funding. Finally, broadline distributors were able to provide local food to child care centers, though center directors expressed distrust of these companies in part due to a lack of a sense of connection to farmers. This study suggests that the financial and social goals of farm to childcare programs need to be decoupled, with a role for Cooperative Extension to provide agricultural and food system education rather than placing that burden on participating farmers. In addition, we provide best practices and guidance for farmers who are interested in participating in farm to child care programs, including considering this market as an outlet for alternate grade produce (“seconds”), working with pre-existing market channels with social missions (such as food hubs), and using farm to childcare as a marketing opportunity to build a community presence.

Project Objectives:
  • Engage 5 – 15 farmers receive farm to child care technical service and training over the course of one year.
    • Develop a curriculum/guide based on the needs of farmer participants to access and maintain business relationships with childcare facilities and distributors serving childcare facilities.
  • Conduct an in-depth case study of farm to childcare relationships, specifically comparing the farmers’ experiences that sell directly to child care centers and those that sell to distributors that service child care centers.
    • Analyze participants' perceptions before and after they are engaged in the farm to childcare market.
    • Explore historical data surrounding participating businesses' missions.
    • Observe, participate in and analyze participants' daily activities, including on-site actions, conversations and during trainings.
    • Explore participants' challenges and perceived benefits to various components of the farm to child care relationship.


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  • Jacob Rutz


Materials and methods:


                  A qualitative case study methodology was chosen to capture the complexity and exploratory nature of this emerging F2CC supply chain. Case studies are best suited for “how and why” questions, when minimal control over the research subjects necessitates obtaining multiple sources of information (Yin, 1989). This case study was divided into three data collection steps in order to build rapport, develop credibility and validity, and encourage participants to fully represent their diverse and often conflicting perspectives (Guest et al., 2013; Mack, Woodsong, MacQueen Guest & Namey, 2005). The research methods were; 1) participant observation on all accessible sites, 2) semi-structured interviews with key informants and 3) content analysis of online and offline documents.

                  Participant observation was conducted over single or multiple days (up to three) on 26 sites for each child care center (11), farm (11) and distributor (4), including working in the kitchens, dining areas and in the field. Observations on-site helped ground the work in understanding the daily interactions between research participants, such as when farmers delivered produce to childcare facilities. Observations in on and off-site activities, such as during F2CC educational events, helped incorporate perspectives from multiple research participants from each site and informed what questions were relevant to explore further through interviews (Guest et al., 2013; Mack et al., 2005). All participant observation sessions were conducted using a field guide to ensure consistency between observation sites.

                  Semi-structured interviews took place at all 26 sites with child care directors (11), farmers (11) and distribution companies (4). Interviews utilized common questions across research participants as well as specific questions pertaining to observations made during the participant observation phase of the research. Directors from each child care center were interviewed about barriers and opportunities in the local food supply chain and how they addressed serving low-income families. Farmers and distributors were questioned about their experiences and perceptions partnering with child care centers to provide local produce. All interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcriptions were thematically coded using NVivo 10 qualitative data analysis software in order to attach and assign meaning to strings of text to organize and develop themes from the data (Saldaña, 2009).

                  All content generated by participants throughout the timeline of the case study, including printed documents (including menus and flyers), web pages and social media, was analyzed as well. Documents and other textual content provided another avenue to interpret values and beliefs put forth by research participants in a non-intrusive data gathering method (Marshall & Rossman, 2011). Content was coded using the same themes generated from interviews in order to further triangulate findings and demonstrate validity of interpretations (Creswell, 2013).  This research was approved by the North Carolina State University IRB under protocol #6038.

Site information:

                  Child care centers were all based in one urban county in North Carolina with an average of 100 children per center. All centers served children from low-income households (as evidenced by their participation in the federal food program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program) and provided at least one meal and one snack worth of food per day. Farmer operation sizes were bimodal in distribution, with one group ranging from less than one to 10 acres (7 participants) and the other comprising larger farms ranging from 750 to over 10,000 acres (4 participants). All farmers focused on a central profitable market (such as direct to consumer or through a distributor) but all farmers also utilized multiple market channels. Participating distribution companies also exhibited a polarization by operational sizes. Two were small, with less than three employees and operated as non-profit food hubs with specific social missions to serve low-income customers. Food hubs are defined as centrally located enterprises focusing on aggregating, distributing and marketing a specific region’s agricultural output (produce) to reach a variety of wholesale, retail and institutional customers (Barham et al., 2012). The other two distributors (one was national, one was regional) were considered “broadliners,” providing produce (both local and non-local), paper products, and other non-food supplies.

Trainings and education:

                  Educational events were hosted by the central organization that conducted this Farm to Child Care Program. This included trainings for farmers about accessing local markets for child care centers, as well as trainings for centers about marketing to parents and cooking with fresh local foods. In addition, the graduate student provided direct technical assistance to the farmers in this project. These included educational events, such as a meet-and-greet style event to connect with child care centers, and one-on-one technical assistance on the farm, including grant writing, child care delivery planning, and production planning.

Research results and discussion:

The results of this study provide insight into an emerging local food market relationship between farmers, distributors and child care centers. As a first step, this study helps to characterize a fairly new market that has very little literature identifying the benefits and challenges to potential participants. The data presented here are a snapshot of the motivations and barriers to participation in an economically viable (as perceived by each participant) farm to child care relationship.

Child Care Centers

Child care centers valued purchasing local food for meals and snacks for multiple reasons:  1) improving childhood nutrition, 2) educating children about agriculture and cooking, and 3) supporting farmers. Child care directors framed purchasing and serving local food as a way to increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables because they felt that local food tasted better and was more desirable to children than canned, frozen or conventional fresh produce. Center directors felt that local food gave their centers greater opportunity to teach children about where their food comes from, qualitatively improving children’s receptivity to new foods and willingness to eat those foods at home. For many teachers at child care centers, incorporating local food into daily activities meant another educational activity for children that integrated taste tests, cooking education and learning about farming. Child care centers pursued direct relationships with farmers when possible in order to have a social exchange between farmer and children as a teachable moment. Child care employees who we interviewed also discussed the importance of supporting local businesses. Many directors described their interest in doing business with small farmers as a type of solidarity with other local entrepreneurs that needed all the support they could get. In turn, child care staff also promoted the market for these farmers to parents, encouraging them to attend farmers markets where these farmers had stands.

Child care centers were challenged to participate in the local food economy despite their strong social motivations to do so. Transitioning from canned or frozen foods to fresh and local food for many child care centers required extra preparation time from cooks. Also, child care directors felt that procuring local foods was challenging, since they often had to go out of their way to purchase at a farmers’ market or have a new vendor come to their center. These additional sourcing activities were a cost to participating in the farm to child care project. While this project helped offset the cost of purchasing local foods for six months for each center through a grant from a local foundation, some directors discussed finding ways to cut costs on other non-local foods in order to sustain purchasing local food once the grant money ran out. Center directors used strategies such as purchasing low-cost staple products (such as rice) from mainstream distributors to save money that could be put towards local purchasing.

Over the course of their experience in the farm to child care project, many child care center directors described negative perceptions of mainstream food distributors, seeing them as global corporations that they felt were unconcerned with the social benefits of purchasing local food, even if that distributor or company offered local food options.  Despite this perception, all child care centers retained a relationship with a more conventional distributor or grocery store in order to meet their basic needs and, as described above, save money on staple products in order to subsidize their ability to purchase local food.


Farmers valued selling locally to child care centers for the social connectivity to their communities, and especially valued working with organizations that served children in both their nutritional and educational development. One larger-scale farmer stated that he liked “staying grounded” in the community by supplying individuals and small-scale clients, like child care centers, with his products because his main source of business and income was through large wholesale distributors.

Despite interest from a majority of farmers in this study to partner with child care centers, those that engaged in a direct-sales relationship with the child care market itself were unable to sustain a viable profit. All but one of five farmers involved in this project who attempted to sell directly to child care centers stopped participating due to low volume sales, decentralized distribution, and low profits. Farmers expressed that selling to centers was a challenging experience; while they felt that their product was desired, the low volume and infrequent purchases were not sustainable for their bottom line. For the four farmers that started and stopped a direct sale relationship with child care centers, all expressed that profitable sales were necessary before they could engage in further social investments (such as teaching children or helping in the garden) that child care centers expected. Farmers reported during interviews and site visits that the extent of the time commitment to fulfill social expectations for child care centers was daunting and a challenge. One farmer described an experience where she set up a farm stand at a center for family members and parents, spending about three hours on site and three hours in preparation and cleanup for this market. Despite the investment, she received very little in sales and did not perceive this event to be worth her time as a form of advertisement or sales for her farm.

Many of the farmers in this study felt that they provided their communities with positive benefits that were aligned with their operations, like being good land stewards or providing nutritious crops to customers; some also donated leftover crops to local food security organizations. However, these farmers felt that direct community service with child care centers was better left to organizations with explicit missions for serving children or low-income people, and was an undue additional burden for farmers. For farmers who sold through broadline distributors, they were unaware of the end markets for their products, and therefore did not feel the same social expectations or sense of connection to the end goals of the farm to childcare project.


The four distributors that participated in this study were split evenly between non-profit food hubs and for-profit companies. All distributors described a central motivation to purchase food from local growers as a means to improve the local economy, continue their long-term relationships in agricultural communities, and give new opportunities to small and medium farmers competing with national and international growers. For the two for-profit companies, this motivation was primarily socially-drive, since they reported that buying local produce did not improve their bottom line.

In addition to sourcing food from local farmers, the non-profit food hubs in this project were also explicitly dedicated to serving low-income people and organizations. This dual mission was sustained by support from grants targeting public health disparities or farming-related issues. Food hub directors reported that the price paid by low-income customers, such as child care centers, were not enough to cover costs at the food hub or purchases from farmers; one food hub director stated that they would need to increase their food sales five times in order to break even. While these food hubs provided an important source of fresh, local foods to customers who would not have access to this food otherwise, their operations could not sustain themselves without external funding, and potentially created an inaccurate image of inexpensive local food for child care centers.


Participation Summary
11 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

5 Farmers participated
9 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:
  • Graduate student’s master’s thesis was based on the research funded by SARE. The thesis is titled “Farm to Child Care: An Analysis of Social and Economic Values in Local Food Systems and can be found at
  • An eight page publication for childcare centers, farmers, and organizers in farm to child care was written and utilized in a statewide training as part of a Kellogg-funded farm to childcare project. This publication will be expanded upon and formally published as a Cooperative Extension publication once additional evaluation of the statewide program is completed in order to expand on the best practices identified as part of this SARE funded research. This guide is entitled “Farm to Child Care Procurement Resource Guide.”
  • A paper entitled Farm to Child Care: Negotiating Tensions Between Social and Economic Values in a Local Food Supply Chain was submitted to the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development and has been returned for revisions before re-submission.
  • A research presentation was given to the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society annual conference in June, 2016 in Toronto, entitled “Getting Started in Farm to Child Care.”
  • A technical presentation was given to the first learning session for the statewide farm to child care project to 80 attendees in March, 2017, entitled “Local food Procurement – More Than Just Buying Local.”

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
6 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


  • Eleven childcare centers in one urban county on average purchased 3-4 local produce items per week during a 6 month growing season to serve as meals or snacks.
  • Five farmers in one urban county received technical assistance about how to engage with the child care market
  • Graduate student facilitated growth in farmer networks by recruiting two food hubs to be part of the project and creating a small farmer directory in one urban county.
  • PI and graduate student wrote a guidebook, “Farm to Child Care Procurement Resource Guide,” that provides information that farmers and childcare centers need to know about each other in order to promote market connections; this guidebook will be expanded upon to include findings from an additional grant-funded project in this area before publication.
  • PI and graduate student developed procurement section of a grant proposal for a farm to child care program for future statewide work funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
  • Through the Kellogg-funded statewide farm to child care presentation, project participants from nine counties were trained on procuring local food. This presentation (given to 80 total attendees) reached five farmers, but the overall impact is greater due to Cooperative Extension representation from each of the nine counties that are involved in the project.
  • In one urban county, farm to child care participants had five farmers participate directly in programs and activities. One farmer has permanently made changes to his farming operation, providing eight child care centers directly with fresh, local foods. Through relationships with food hubs and distributors, 30 farmers were impacted by child care center purchases. Exact numbers of farmers influenced is difficult to quantify because broadline distribution partners did not submit documentation of the farmers with whom they worked.

Expected Long-term Impacts

  • Food intermediaries across the state that serve the child care industry (primarily small distributors, catering services and grocery stores) begin to source local food items for child care.
  • Intermediary organizations experience a growth in local food sales year round due to child care demand.
  • Local producers experience a growth in sales to intermediaries due to demand from child care centers.


Knowledge Gained:

Our knowledge about the potential of childcare as a market for local products, and the infrastructural challenges within both child care centers and the local food system, was enhanced. Farm to childcare is gaining increase attention because of the promising nature of this market. For example in comparison to farm to school (F2S) programs, F2CC has lower barriers to entry and more flexibility in food use, suggesting the possibility of new and viable farm connections and holistic nutrition programs. Childcare centers are open year round, purchasing food through multiple market options, making them more flexible consumers (Hoffman et al., 2016). Likewise, childcare centers don’t require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, a private food safety measure that can be a barrier to small farms entering institutional markets. Federal funding for food in many child care centers is similar to free and reduced lunches in the public school system, subsidizing costs for low-income families through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). In addition, in North Carolina, over 6,600 early care and education settings were in operation in 2016, serving nearly 250,000 children throughout the state (Division of Child Development and Early Education, 2016). Nearly 125,000 childcare attendees were enrolled in subsidized food programs in North Carolina in 2016, providing free and discounted meals to children in low-income households (Division of Child Development and Early Education, 2016). 

However, despite these promising statistics about the size and flexibility of the child care market, through this study we learned more about the challenges that we face to making the market viable. While child care centers are socially motivated to participate in farm to child care, they face financial and labor challenges to procuring and utilizing local food products. Many child care centers have limited storage and kitchen equipment. In addition, the child care centers in this study tended to purchase low volumes of product, which kept profits low for farmers. Distribution within the network was also a challenge for individual growers. While food hubs and broadline distributors helped overcome the challenges of distribution, food hubs were only able to do so because they were subsidized by grant funding, and child care centers felt disconnected from local agriculture when purchasing through distributors. We believe that there are many opportunities for continued research and extension in order to build the viability of the farm to child care market. Through a Kellogg-funded grant, we plan to continue research into the infrastructure surrounding child care facilities, including the potential role of caterers and centralized kitchens to procure and prepare local food. We also believe that there are educational opportunities that would enhance the long-term sustainability of these projects, and which suggest a role for Cooperative Extension. These include education for child care staff about seasonality and preparing fresh, local food items; nutrition, gardening and agricultural literacy education for children, staff, and parents; and increased engagement with parents as potential customers for local farms.


  • Develop options to sell small or off-grade produce that is unsalable in wholesale or direct markets. Child care centers must process most vegetables to be consumable to small children and purchasing off-grade produce can help them save money and a farmer sell a new product line.
  • Farm to child care programs should focus on economic and social goals separately.
    • In terms of programs’ economic goals of benefitting local farmers, we recommend supporting existing local and regional market channels in order to build a stronger local food economy. Technical assistance providers can help child care centers connect to food hubs, farm stands, farmers markets and other pre-existing market channels that do not add extra costs of doing business for farmers. These networking actions will also help farmers improve the performance of their existing market channels, in turn improving financial viability.
    • In terms of farm to childcare programs’ socially-oriented goals, we observed that providing education about farming was an additional burden expected of farmers. Instead, we recommend that organizations like Cooperative Extension provide educational opportunities for child care centers about agriculture that farmers may not have the capacity to provide. Extension Master Gardener volunteers, Extension Master Food Volunteers, 4-H, and other community assets in food and agriculture can provide a quality educational experience for young children about growing plants, caring for animals, nutrition, and cooking. 
    • Child care partners need education about growing practices, what is in season and how to use products. Farmers do not need to put on an educational program, but can provide thorough information when they drop off products, through weekly emails or flyers to customers, or just in conversation at farmers’ markets. Likewise, farmers can reach out to Cooperative Extension for help in educating child care partners. These actions in turn can help child care centers promote their farming partners as well.
  • Evaluation of farm to child care projects should include, but also look beyond financial impacts to include indicators of engagement and spillover effects. Metrics for a more encompassing evaluation could include measuring the influence on parents of children in child care and their perceptions of local foods, changes in menus in child care towards local foods, and frequency of local food purchase. These measures, and others, could benefit farmer financial well-being by building demand and utilization of local food, while also attempting to quantify child care center’s social and educational goals. While financial measures should not be ignored, farm to child care organizers can take quantitative financial measures alongside qualitative social measures to determine program success.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.