Farm to School Champion: Cheryl Moss

Owner & Director, A Mother’s Touch Center for Child Development, Sharon, PA

Tell us about yourself and your connection to the farm to school movement.

I’m the owner and director of A Mother’s Touch Center for Child Development

Being part of the Farm to ECE world has truly been a blessing to me. Keystone Kids Go and The Food Trust helped me get started by giving me the resources to do gardening with the kids. I’m not a gardener by trade. I do not like worms of any kind. But  the children's interest has kept me going and, in a way, their excitement has even helped me overcome the fear of worms. 

Before we had our garden, we used to walk down to a community garden at the local school to see how things were growing. I started taking the kids because they thought the food came from Aldi [the grocery store]. I realized it was time for them to learn where food really comes from and how it grows. That community garden was perfect for us to start learning. There were even some vegetables that we could pick to take home. Unfortunately, that community garden was discontinued because some teenagers — from outside our community — would come and destroy the plants. But this garden had already sparked enough interest in the kids for us to know it was good. We wanted to continue to pick tomatoes and broccoli to bring back home and feed it to them. That interest was enough for us to think of trying to grow in our space. I realized I had enough yard space and the timing worked because I found a couple of grants. I applied for the grants, I said, “I had nothing to lose!” So we tried it, and it was successful! We have been gardening for almost five years. We started with a wellness grant from the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit. I used some of that funding to start buying parts of the garden and to host different activities with an exercise physiologist.  It felt like a field trip day for my kids when they got to walk to the school. Then we received another grant from The Food Trust and that is how we were able to complete our vision for what we wanted to do with our site garden.

It's been a real blessing because the kids help from start to finish. The interesting thing is that none of the kids are over 5 years old! Even the 1-year-olds are learning how to say “beans.” One little one would point to the beans to eat, he only has four teeth, so I would break little pieces for them to try. 

The children plant the seed in the small cups and water them. In May, they planted them in the ground. A farmer donated bags of soil that have worms in it. The children helped me with the worms and moved the soil from the wheelbarrow into the yard. We started small in 2016 and continue to add 1-2 raised beds each year. Now we have nine raised beds. I make story books documenting the process each year. Children love to play in dirt so we made it purposeful. They got a chance to play and learn with dirt. They are loving it. It's been very educational for them and because they have a vested interest in the garden, they were willing to try what they planted. They ate what they planted! When I first started, We planted whatever we could but after learning what vegetables kids like we plant those. Sugar peas, green beans, tomatoes… Even the picky eaters would eat what we planted if they picked it from the vine. We don’t allow parents to bring food. We want to develop healthy eaters. It's harder when parents don't eat vegetables. All children try the food together. We try to build confidence and help develop the palate when we work with picky eaters to try vegetables in a new space.  

How has the COVID-19 emergency impacted your work?

We were closed for a while and now have reopened but with a smaller group, following safety guidelines. I lost some staff. Now there are only two of us at the site. I haven't taken a full load of children nor infants so that can keep the required student-teacher ratio. It’s been hard trying to find staff to join us. 

This was  also probably the hardest year to garden... because of COVID and not having much help to plant. My husband and my daughter helped me plant in hopes that we would be able to open early in the summer, but we didn’t open until august. Maintaining a garden by myself was hard without the children. They helped me weed and play in the garden. There was still plenty of garden for them to enjoy when we did open back up in the fall. Just last Friday we were harvesting and eating green beans. It was peaceful.  We spend more time outside because of COVID, even more than what we normally would do. And because we're outside, the children are paying even more attention to the garden. The children now have a digging bed where they can explore the roots and look for ”treasures” in the dirt where worms live. I’m amazed by the peace and calm that falls over them while they are digging in the garden. They are in their own world. It’s a stress reliever. We had to change their clothes when they were done. But that was OK because they felt better. 

The parents have been able to take food home with them. Beans and tomatoes. 

Because CACFP was still allowing us to prepare meals I continue to prepare meals for the children from April to August for 7 days of the week for the parent to pick up. The parents were very appreciative. I was glad because I did not want any bad eating habits to develop as the parents got busier or unable to cook healthy meals. It worked well. I offered good portions and they were happy.

What are you doing now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, that you hope to keep moving forward, once we emerge out of an emergency state?

I started shopping more wisely. We don’t know what is going to happen after the election. So I now have a good supply for the kids. They are not going to suffer or have to stop eating nutritious wholesome meals if something were to happen. I think the pandemic has helped me think along those lines. You have to prepare for the future. For the future of the kids. They may not be getting all the fresh fruits and vegetables that they are accustomed to, but I do have canned fruits and vegetables if we run out or can’t get any fresh fruits. I have stocked up for them.The pandemic is getting people to think and come up with creative ways around things. So many people did not think they could do it until now. We have had to re-create, reconfigure and reprogram ourselves. 

At our site, we saved our seeds at the end of the season so that we can plant them for the following years. Just now we are drying the seeds from our pumpkins while letting the kids try it.   

I have also started drying my herbs using my buildings’ old radiator systems. I’m even saving the oregano’s herb stems. You learn!  

What has this crisis shown you about our country’s food system?

I have started buying canning supplies and I notice that they have become more popular during the pandemic. The shelves are cleaned out empty. I have noticed other people say that this year people have become more sensitive to food and scarcity. And they are learning how to sustain themselves and learning how to garden and going with it. I think that with this crisis leaving so many without a job that the crisis has taught people how to be more creative.  They are doing what they can to survive. So I think canning and gardening are those things they have picked up and are learning how to do. 

What would be your advice for those inspired by your work and excited to try/replicate it in their own community?

Don’t be afraid to try! Go for it. It’s OK if it does not work once. Give it a chance to work. 

I wish more sites and parents would try gardening. You don’t have to be a gardener. I’m not a gardener and I don’t like worms. But it’s so worth trying it! 

Try it even if it is just growing in a small pot, on the windowsill or on the fence. Try growing something little with the children and you will see how much they enjoy it after a while. 

Try something for them to understand how our food starts and how nutritious it is for them. They’ll pick that up. You will be surprised.

Herbs, green beans or fresh spinach work very well... so do tomatoes. And there will be plenty of those! We have also tried shard and fresh lettuce this year and I had never planted lettuce before. But we did it! 

Did I have flops? Oh, ABSOLUTELY. My cauliflower and beets did not look great and my eggplants died. But that is how I learned that the plants needed more room.  But other things did work. Our celery worked this year. It did not come out as expected, but we now have thin stalks to use on our soup and the kids love it. I just go out there and chop my celery and make my soup. I use the leaves ... I use everything and it's so good. I made turkey soup on our Instapot ... I went outside and got celery, basil, oregano and rosemary from the garden and put it all on the pot with the turkey and the broth. I only had 6 or 7 kids that day… but they finished almost all of what I cooked! I only had a little leftover for my husband and I to eat at home. 

It’s great to see them eating what they planted. They are loving it. My prayer is that once they are older they will remember that they had a garden and they would want to try what they grew in their garden; and maybe even try gardening themselves. 

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