The state Department of Agriculture's "Farm to Preschool" program encourages young children to explore the many kinds of fruits and vegetables available in the Garden State

Food and Nutrition Director Rose Tricario said the discussion of "Farm to School" started about 10 years ago and in the recent past, the NJDA's program has stretched to other programs including "Farm to Preschool" and "Farm to Summer."

"The mission of the programs are really to get children introduced to fruits and vegetables at an early age so that they're going to take these healthy habits with them into adulthood," Tricario said.

The programs include nutrition education, local procurement, field trips to local farms and anything that else that can help expose the children to fruits and vegetables.

Alphabets Preschool Center in Asbury Park takes part in the "Farm to Preschool" program. Tricario said the NJDA visited the school recently and was thrilled to see the small children eating kale chips.

The school has a chef who prepares food from scratch with ingredients from a garden planted out back. Tricario said the program has proven to be successful because children are exploring new foods and are asking for more.

From taste tests to school gardens, multiple resources are available to help sites and sponsors bring local food to early childcare settings. Tricario said educators can also use school garden programs to teach any subject.

"The gardens allow children to learn how to grow the foods, and they learn that the foods that they're eating are actually not just coming from a grocery store. They are teaching valuable lessons on how to grow the food," Tricario said.

In a survey sent to school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program in New Jersey, 255 schools said they purchase some local produce from their main distributors, 223 districts said they purchase local produce from farms and 114 districts said they organize field trips to farms.

The NJDA's "Farm to School" program started a new initiative at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year called "Jersey Tastes" — a year-long celebration of produce grown in the Garden State. The program features one fruit or vegetable a month and provides resources for schools so that they can further promote that particular item on their menus, in their gardens and in nutrition education.

The tomato was the featured item in September, the first month of "Jersey Tastes!" Lettuce is the featured item for March.

Tricario also said legislation in New Jersey has supported farm-to-school efforts across the state. People have donated to the NJ Charitable Fund section of the NJ tax form. With that money, the NJDA can further give grants to schools to take children on field trips, start school gardens and take part in other initiatives.

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