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TALKING WITH: The Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Melanie Harris

melanie_harrisAs Nutritional Educator and Outreach Specialist for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Melanie Harris is in a unique position to crow about the momentum behind farm to school programs in our state. She’s also one of the key architects of the Department of Agriculture’s Feed My School for a Week initiative, which “serves as a major learning tool to better equip the distribution chain to provide local foods throughout Georgia.”

In its first year, the program was piloted in three schools—Norman Park Elementary School in Colquitt County, Wauka Mountain Elementary School in Hall County, and Bleckley County Elementary School in Bleckley County.

For one week, each of these schools’ lunches consisted of 75 to 100 percent Georgia Grown food. They also held taste tests, art and essay contests, and farm visits.

The reaction was roundly positive, and this year Feed My School for a Week has expanded to five schools: Colbert Elementary School in Madison County, West Chatham Elementary in Chatham County, Southside Elementary School in Grady County, Skyview Elementary School in Bibb County, and Sharon Elementary School in Forsyth County.

Georgia Organics: How did Feed My School for a Week come about?

Melanie Harris: Farm to School’s a hot topic, and aside from that it just makes sense. Agriculture is our no. 1 industry. [Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Georgia State School Superintendent John Barge] wanted to tie that into our school systems—how can we bring it into our local economy, not only for that benefit but for awareness and education. And of course we have wonderful ag education teachers across the state and wonderful ag curriculum out there, and it being our no. 1 industry, students need to be educated on the opportunities it affords.

GO: How did you decide which schools systems to include in the program’s inaugural year?

Harris: We wanted to have a geographical focus because I found that our distribution systems within the state of Georgia are very diverse and our demographics are very diverse. So we selected a north, middle, and south Georgia county, and we really looked at, is there that community support? We value and understand that farm to school is a grassroots effort. No matter what you teach, if you don’t have the buy-in of the person purchasing food or the buy-in of the school board and staff, you’re not going to have the support.

GO: What has the reaction been to Feed My School for a week?

Harris: I’ve been blown away by the reaction to the program.,We’ve received many thank you notes from partners from all over the state. Growers have been able to grow their business, and sustainable relationships have been formed. Of course with any pilot program you’re going to learn and grow, and there’s things that we would do differently, but overall it was just a wonderful effort. It was a lot of hard work, and it was a lot of extra work even at the local level, but anything worth doing takes a little extra work.

GO: Has Feed My School for a week impacted the state-wide conversation about farm to school?

Harris: Honestly, it’s like wildfire, and the nutrition directors that haven’t been involved in the program are calling and asking “How can we get involved?” Ones that even weren’t selected as our new schools are still working with our nutrition directors on their own. “How did you do it? Give me some tips, what did your bidding documents look like? What was your menu?” And they’re just sharing and helping each other, so we’re really just seeing farm to school explode because we did it at such a large scale, even for a minute amount of time, but they saw that it’s do-able.

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