“I normally do not eat salad at all,” said a student in Adrienne Smith’s plant science class this spring after he sampled organic lettuce grown by his fellow students at Colquitt County High School. “I only did because you made me try it, but then I really liked it.” The salad, which was flanked by various vinaigrettes (“Do we have any reformed ranchists?” Smith asked), was part of a taste test alongside caprese sticks that featured basil the they grew as well.
“If you like pizza, you’re going to like these little sticks,” Smith told her students as they lined up to try them. (Editor’s note: She is correct and they were amazing.)
Smith quoted a statistic she learned at a Georgia Organics training for agriculture teachers – students are 80 percent more likely to eat something they’ve grown themselves, which is why taste tests are so integral to farm to school curriculum.
Colquitt County Schools’ farm to school work was outstanding long before nutrition director Monika Griner took our 5 Million Meals pledge. Colquitt County is a longtime state leader in agriculture production, and last year the school system’s Norman Park Elementary School participated in the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Feed My School for a Week program, and for a week featured 75-100 percent Georgia-grown food. Colquitt County High School is also one of 38 pilot agriculture education programs incorporating farm to school in the state.
“Colquitt County was doing farm to school before farm to school was cool, if you will, because it just made sense,” said Melanie Harris, the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Farm to School Director. “It made sense to work with a local distributor because they had the produce. I think Feed My School helped move the education of that even further, and helped them think through some of the development of their program and helped them have a more comprehensive program.”
Before Griner, a former home economics teacher, helped feed the children of Colquitt County Schools, she fed her own. That experience as a parent has motivated her in the decade she’s spent as nutrition director.
Federal nutritional mandates paired with federal funding cuts can be challenging, but Griner sees myriad benefits in using ingredients from nearby growers. Food from local farms doesn’t come laden with preservatives, and doesn’t have to be shipped across the country to make it on students’ plates. (Additional bonus: Shipping charges are less for local food!)
“I’ve come to understand completely that fresher is better,” she said.
The scope of the agricultural education facilities at Colquitt County High School is remarkable, and further proof of the community’s commitment to growing. Their FFA chapter is the largest in the state, and the school has two greenhouses, as well as a 4,000 sq. ft. garden that features three raised beds. Students grow tomatoes, peas, okra, corn, as well as organic lettuce, herbs, and more. Gallon-sized cans left over from their booth at the Sunbelt Ag Expo are repurposed to grow green beans, and their advanced science classes are even studying composting. The school even has a canning plant that the whole community uses.
As farm to school has blossomed in Colquitt County, leaders like Griner have leveraged these resources. “I didn’t see the purpose in doing it without teaming up with the ag department,” she said.
“I just appreciate that Mrs. Griner is open to this and getting outside the box,” said Bob Jones, the principal at CCHS.
Packer Produce distributes and packages food from local farms and sells it wholesale to school systems and restaurant customers—an important role in getting food from Colquitt County farms onto the plates of Colquitt County students. (They also have a storefront for non-wholesale customers.) “Everyone in Colquitt County has someone in their family involved in agriculture,” said Tommie Beth Willis, the manager there.
Feeding farm-fresh food to Colquitt County’s students is important to Griner, and she recognizes the need to teach them where that food comes from and why knowing that is important. Like so many here, she is proud of what her community has accomplished: a school system where students are eating—and growing— healthy, tasty food.