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By Diana St. Lifer

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but what about an apple and a book? This combination, which nourishes both body and mind, is the goal of Cook County’s Well-Fed & Well-Read initiative, aiming to reach at least 500 low-income children and their families.

Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) awarded a $75,000 Community Transformation Grant to Cook County Family Connection to reduce food insecurity for children ages birth to 5 while including literacy materials that promote healthy nutrition and wellness. The 18-month program kicked off in July in the small, rural county.

“Cook has a long history of persistent poverty, with one in three children living below the poverty level,” said Cook County Family Connection Executive Director Zoe Myers. “While our third-grade reading proficiency score has increased slightly, it is still not good.”

In 2019, 28.8% of third graders achieved Proficient Learner or above on the English Language Arts Milestones assessment—up from 16.6% in 2018 but still considerably lower than the state’s average of 42% in 2019.

As a Get Georgia Reading Campaign community, the Collaborative is invested in childhood literacy. “Students who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school and there’s a greater probability of being incarcerated, unemployed, and impoverished,” said Myers. “Our priority is to begin making changes as early as possible.”

Cook County Family Connection was one of 17 organizations in the nation to receive funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute to conduct research on the local impacts of the pandemic. Their findings showed that 57% of Cook County residents reported struggling with food insecurity in 2020, compared to 16% prior to the pandemic.

The Well-Fed & Well-Read initiative combines healthy nutrition and literacy, including family food drops, on-site food pantries, community gardens, a produce and book delivery truck, nutrition fairs, and cooking classes. Partners include Candy Cane Learning Centers, Cook County Head Start, Cook County Pre-K, the Baby Hornets Program, and the Migrant Education Program.

“We know we have children who are hungry. Families know they need food,” said Becky Ratts, assistant superintendent/federal programs director for Cook County School District. “The well-read part meets a need that some families may not realize. We want them to understand they also need to feed their young child’s brain and help them be ready for school.”

Nearly 60% of Cook’s 3- and 4-year-olds aren’t enrolled in quality preschool. Myers joined Ratts in launching Baby Hornets four years ago for families with children age 4 and under. “We recognize that these children and their families have to be connected into the pre-K pipeline early enough so that by the time they reach kindergarten they’re on the right trajectory to succeed academically,” said Myers.

The program underscores the importance of talking, reading, playing, and engaging with children, and gives caregivers early literacy skills and read-aloud strategies. “We show them how to talk about the pictures, sounds, and rhyming words,” Ratts explained.

One of the first Well-Fed & Well-Read initiatives to roll out was Family Connection’s produce truck, which now includes storybooks among the cases of fresh fruits and vegetables. The truck serves 75 families each month at designated sites with children age 5 and under.

Candace Horne, owner and director of Candy Cane Learning Centers, said the preschoolers look forward to these visits. “They know that when the truck comes, they will have fruit and books to take home,” she said. “It’s the first thing the kids tell their parents about during pick up.”

Faith-based food pantries now distribute books along with food, too. Meanwhile, Cook County Head Start and Candy Cane Learning Centers are creating onsite food pantries. “There will be a shelf in a discrete area at the Learning Centers where families can fill a bag with emergency food supplies and get books as well,” Myers said.

The Candy Cane Learning Centers will begin on-site cooking classes for families and create more community gardens to help kids learn about and grow fruits and vegetables. “We read a book about a fruit or vegetable, and then we grow it in our garden. It encourages the kids to try a greater variety of foods,” Horne said. “I let parents know what we’re growing and discuss preparation suggestions so we’re all on the same page about healthy nutrition.”

New nutrition fairs will be structured similarly to the Collaborative’s health and wellness fairs, which reach up to 200 families at once, but Myers is prepared to pivot to a drive-through event if needed, due to COVID-19.

Health clinics adding literacy tables in their lobbies is just one way literacy is becoming embedded throughout the community. “It’s been a natural evolution among all our partners,” said Myers. “Instead of doing business as usual, the thinking is, let’s add the priority areas into what we’re already doing.”

Cook is in its fifth year as a Two Georgias community, an initiative funded by the Healthcare Georgia Foundation. Myers said part of the $80,000 funding from that grant will support Well-Fed & Well-Read as it addresses the program’s priorities of literacy and improved food access, along with funding from a $25,000 Collective Impact Grant that focuses on literacy education.

“Data drives everything we do,” said Myers. “We always use data and input from our partners to form a common vision of what the real priorities are for our community—and literacy and education have risen to the surface.”

October is Farm to School Month, a statewide celebration coordinated by Georgia Organics. Participants will gain access to a robust online resource toolkit to help you plan and implement your activities. Resources include Georgia standards-based lessons for early care through 12th grade, educational activities, fact sheets and growing guidance, and a delicious and diverse array of okra recipes shared by fellow Georgia farm to school stakeholders.

Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist

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Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public-private partnership created by the State of Georgia and investors from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities.