Farm to school in southwest Georgia has a champion in Daa’iyah Salaam. Daa’iyah is the Business Development Specialist for Southwest Georgia Project (SWGAP), an organization that works with farmers and communities in 14 counties. Although SWGAP has several initiatives, food is the common denominator for all their projects; they want to uplift agriculture and help communities change for the better through agriculture.
Daa’iyah and her co-workers have been helping growers through their Limited Resource Farmer Program for years, training farmers and connecting them with resources. But these small farms could not find reliable markets in this part of the state where Big Ag rules. The farmers didn’t see a point to farming more and farming better when there was no market for their product. So SWGAP started calling up school districts and a few were interested in buying from these farmers. Dougherty County has now even set a goal of buying 20 percent of its fruits and vegetables locally.
The first big sale for these farmers came when the school system bought butternut squash for a taste test that SWGAP hosted. That’s when Daa’iyah knew farm to school was a real opportunity for the farmers she served. “We’d been working with these farmers for so long, and they’ve been struggling all their lives to move their product,” she says. “To see that sale, it was the change. It was our very first in, and since then we’ve been able to sell to some restaurants, too. That butternut squash was our victory, and that was the turning point for me.”
Of course, kids are important part of farm to school too. Daa’iyah remembers some students thinking the cubes of butternut squash at the taste test were cheese. “Our children don’t know where our food comes from now,” she says. “Of course milk comes from a cow. But they do not connect our food with animals and plants. So we feel that it is our obligation, our responsibility to not only find markets for our farmers, but help shift the way we think about food in this region.” SWGAP not only wants to connect farmers’ products with school cafeterias, it also wants to get the farmers into classrooms and the students out onto farms and into gardens.
“Farm to school is important here because it not only allows our small farmers to have a place to put their produce and have a market, but it allows our students to be connected with the farmers that are right here next to them and it gives the students and their parents an opportunity to understand where their food comes from, why it’s important to support local farmers, and why it’s important to eat local and eat fresh,” Daa’iyah says.
A dozen small farmers are currently concentrating on growing spinach, broccoli, and romaine lettuce for Dougherty County Schools to purchase in the fall.