The grade school-aged children at the Hmong American Partnership in St. Paul focused on the pages before them, using crayons and pencils to color green onions, purple cabbage and pale yellow bitter melon — vegetables and fruits they will see growing in a field this summer.

Exposing young children to vegetables and fruits means they are much more likely to eat them into adulthood, health advocates say, and a Minnesota program is working to maximize that knowledge in a culturally sensitive way.

The Hmong American Farmers Association and the local nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy are partnering to deliver boxes of fresh vegetables to in-home early childhood care centers on the East Side of St. Paul, as well as invite children into farm fields to learn about how food is grown.

The food is delivered like any other Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box to 15 in-home centers in a neighborhood where many Hmong farmers live.

Lillian Hang knew her family's farm was providing food to children, but before an event last week where kids identified vegetables in two languages and made butter by shaking containers of heavy cream, she had never seen how it was also helping them learn.

"Everyone deserves healthy food, so it's so cool to say 'healthy food, it's not just for adults, it's for kids, too,' " Hang said.

Early care providers receive CSA boxes at no cost when they enroll, supported by the Blue Cross Blue Shield's Center for Prevention. The initiative helps support local farmers and sets children on the path to healthy eating, said Erin McKee VanSlooten, the institute's community food systems program director.

"We're working with kids in that window where they're really developing their tastes, preferences and eating habits that they're going to carry forward for the rest of their lives," McKee VanSlooten said.

The program was launched during the pandemic, but it will expand this summer to include more engagement with families, such as educational visits from farmers.

The majority of infants, toddlers and 3- to 5-year-olds in Minnesota regularly attend child care, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. It's there that children get the majority of their nutrition in a day, VanSlooten said.

In a child's first 1,000 days, they form important taste preferences influenced by mealtime environments, maternal diet, nutritional quality and interactions between children and their care providers, a Health Department spokesperson said.

Through the partnership, children learn about where food is grown in Minnesota and the people who grow it, said Janssen Hang, the Hmong American Farmers Association executive director and co-founder. At a young age, he said, children have the notion that food comes from the grocery store. But when they learn otherwise, Hang said, they are wowed.

Like other summer CSA boxes, the collaboration runs from June through Thanksgiving. Boxes include from eight to 15 types of produce. Hang said children love the vegetables commonly found in Hmong dishes, such as lemongrass, mustard greens and squash blossoms.

"While they have their staples, we'll introduce them to some other stuff they're not as fond of, like herbs cilantro and dill," Hang said. "They're like 'oh, what is this?'"

Farmers are always pressing for ways they can use their food to elevate their communities, he said, and everyone is excited to see fresh food on tables.

"The success that we have is incremental, but one thing we always like to do is reflect and debrief on things and look back like, 'Wow, we didn't realize the impact or the magnitude of the program and the impact that it has on our community members here,'" Hang said.

The program is recruiting its next group of in-home early care centers to work with this summer — as soon as the veggies begin to grow.