Samantha Benjamin-Kirk is the USDA’s Southeast Regional Lead for Farm to School. She is a great resource for us here in Georgia and we love working with her! Read on to hear her story of how she got involved in this movement.
Benjamin-Kirk: I have always cared for others in one capacity or another, whether it was providing clothing, shelter, food, or even fighting for my country in the United States Army. My career as a food service professional is diverse, from feeding troops in the deserts of Kuwait to serving underprivileged children in the public school system of Georgia. My 29 years of experience in food services have shaped the way I perceive sustainable food systems: as a right rather than a privilege, as a necessity not an added pleasure.
Working in the public school system was an eye-opener and a gateway for me to help children. I realized that when school is out, for long weekends, holidays, spring break, and summer vacation, children who depend on school meals go hungry. The realization that student meal entitlements decrease, and hunger increases during school breaks is what drew me to my current position in the USDA/FNS Farm to School Program.
Currently, I am the USDA’s Southeast Farm to School Regional Lead and, the national farm to school/Tribal Initiatives liaison. The Southeast region extends across eight states: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. My role as the Regional Lead is to help facilitate implementation of farm to school programming and provide farm to school and local food system resources and information relevant to the region.
In addition, my role as the national Tribal Initiative liaison is to provide technical assistance, training, and awareness of farm to school programming to Native American communities implementing and building new foundations that lead to incorporating traditional and indigenous foods items into school meals, across the country.
One of my objectives in supporting farm to school programming in Georgia is to assist school districts in taking full advantage of locally produced agricultural products. Georgia’s agricultural industry includes a variety of products that could diversify the school meal tray and contribute to the state’s economy.
Georgia has outstanding farm to school participation. According to USDA’s Farm to School Census report, Georgia ranked 10th in the nation for the total number of schools engaged in farm to school in school year 2011-2012. In Georgia, there are 1,295 schools that impact 1,008,946 students conducting some form of farm to school programming. In addition, survey respondents indicated that 29% had school gardens, 52% percent of school districts are using local foods in breakfast, and 91% percent of school districts used local foods in school lunch.
There is no one farm to school project in Georgia that stands above the rest. The state of Georgia has done an excellent job depicting diversity and opportunity for increasing farm to school programming in both rural and urban areas. Georgia’s farm to school partnerships include several USDA agencies, Farm Services, and Rural Development, which work alongside a variety of state departments, cooperative extension agencies, non-profit organizations, community leaders, parents and students.
Georgia’s children benefit from the growing efforts of farm to school initiatives by having fresher and healthier food options at school, nutrition education curriculum, and school gardens used as experimental learning labs. Georgia farm to school programming can truly be perceived as one of the nation’s most outstanding models.