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TALKING WITH: Farm to School hero Teri Hamlin

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Teri Hamlin, Farm to School legend

After 31 years of teaching and coordinating agriculture education, Teri Hamlin was excited about retirement. And she still is, because so far that retirement has been spent spearheading our farm to school pilot program in Habersham County.

The project, which is made possible by a grant from the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia, takes a comprehensive approach to farm to school that emphasizes the former as much as the latter.

Here at Georgia Organics, we’ve done lots of work on farm to school programs in school systems around the state, but had never focused on a comprehensive program that specifically worked with farmers in a 50-mile radius.

“It was something that I wanted to see happen that I believed in,” Hamlin said.

It’s clear Hamlin’s heart and mind are in this program; she’s just as liable to talk about the nitty gritty of food procurement contracts as the “sweet faces of our farmers.” (Those sweet faces are all Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Organic, or use organic best practices. “They’re all good stewards of the earth,” Hamlin says of the growers participating in the pilot.)

There’s a great culture around farm to school in the North Georgia mountains—agriculture is ingrained in the community there, and there’s friendly competition between school systems to incorporate that into school nutrition. In Habersham, it’s also incorporated into the curriculum at Hilliard A.Wilbanks Middle School, and we’ve held trainings for teachers and school nutrition staff, as well as meetings with farmers and the community.

Hamlin is a wonderful and crucial link between farms and nutrition directors. She knows growing practices, and is able to educate school nutrition staff about them. She also understands how important a set contract is for growers; it allows them to plan their crops and budgets, and helps them feel ownership in the Habersham project.

We talk a lot about how farm to school programs need strong community support to really thrive, and the farmers are absolutely essential. And historically, their involvement can be the most difficult because even if they have the capacity to sell to a large buyer like a school system, they can probably make more money selling someplace else. That’s just the market.

In Habersham, the farmers and School Nutrition Director Paige Holland (another vital and completely inspiring part of the Habersham County farm to school pilot) agreed to a price in their contracts, and the farmers are able to make it work. They’ve formed relationships with Hamlin and Holland, and want to work with them. The total amount purchased is relatively small, but they plant to grow that amount over the next 2 years as they build the infrastructure.

Which brings up the inevitable fact that the pilot will one day end. Erin Croom, our farm to school director, always says that when we embark on these types of projects we’re already planning our exit strategy. We want to help the community lay claim to these programs so they can carry on the work we’ve helped them start.

“We’ve had a lot of fun, and it’s something I believe in,” Hamlin says.

And something, we hope, that will continue to grow. Organic farmers always say that you have to start with the soil. Thanks to Hamlin’s hard work, and the hard work of the community in Habersham County, we think the dirt is mighty fine.

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