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Interview with Northeast Georgia Farm to School

NEGA Cantfort picBy Abbie King, Intern, Georgia Organics Farm to School Intern

We interviewed our Northeast Georgia Farm to School Regional Coordinator and Assistant, Maggie Van Cantfort & Georgia O’Farrell, about the exciting work they are doing in Habersham and Rabun counties as part of the Northeast Georgia Farm to School program.

What is your role with Farm to School?

Maggie: I am the Northeast Georgia Farm to School Regional Coordinator. I facilitate farm to school programming in Habersham county and Rabun county schools, provide technical assistance to directors in all fourteen north Georgia counties, and supervise two FoodCorps service members.

Georgia: I am the Northeast Georgia Farm to School Regional Assistant.  My main focus is Rabun County where I am currently helping grow their program. I also work with Maggie on bigger events for Farm to School in Northeast Georgia, such as festivals and meetings with community partners and school faculty.

What is your background coming into this position?

Maggie: I have a Masters in Teaching in middle grade science and social studies. My background is primarily in environmental and farm-based education. I have also worked as a farm hand, as the Clarksville Farmer’s Market manager and the Georgia Mountains Farm Tour Coordinator.  I was drawn to farm to school through my work in teaching science and environmental issues. I became aware of my own disconnect, as well as a cultural disconnect, from where my food comes from and the environmental impact of food production. The Farm to School program is a perfect blend of connecting youth’s everyday lives to food production and getting healthier foods to our students supporting local farmers.

Georgia: I am originally from California where I graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in June.  My first experience with agriculture was my senior year of college when I implemented a garden in the county jail for my senior project. Before that, agriculture and farming weren’t really on my radar. Our goal was to create a sustainable garden for the county jail in two low security locations with the prisoners growing the food and then getting to see it on their plates. It was cool to see how gardening can be a bridge to bring a bunch of different groups together. People were willing to learn and listen to each other. It was my first experience seeing what a positive impact food has on people and it was very healing for inmates.

After graduation, I moved to Georgia where I am now working at my grandparent’s vineyard, Tiger Mountain Vineyards, and at Leah Lake Farm. This was my next introduction to the local agriculture community. I have gotten to see how much it benefits the community to have local agriculture for people to support.  I started with Farm to School as a volunteer for the taste tests in Rabun County. I thought it was really important for students to know what their community was like and where the food they eat was coming from. I was super excited about the job opportunity and working as a connector for all these community groups and schools.

What are your current Farm to School projects?

Maggie: There are lots of projects! In January, we installed a school community garden for Rabun county schools and are implementing a garden program with their teachers. We do farm to school taste tests in our partner school cafeterias every month and assist with school gardens at five partner schools in Habersham County. Our current FoodCorps service members develop and teach curriculum in the classroom, with topics ranging from the politics of potatoes to interdependence of species.

We have farm to school ambassadors from our five Habersham County partner schools that get to participate in a monthly chef-led cooking class at Habersham High School’s culinary arts classroom. The lessons include one or more local food products. Last month the kids pickled beets and baked kale chips; next month they will be making apple mint ravioli.

Mobile cooking carts are available at all partner schools to incorporate local food into classroom lessons. For example, one FoodCorps taught third graders about heat, conduction, and convection by demonstrating different ways to cook local potatoes.

Another developing initiative is a farm to school summer camp. The idea for the camp came from the Habersham County Leadership Team comprised of representatives from each of the partner schools and representatives from various community partners, including the 4-H, cooperative extension, and Farm Bureau, and community volunteers. The plan is to have a mobile camp in which campers will learn about the food system from the soil to processing, selling/purchasing, preparing, and eating. Campers will visit farms, learn to preserve foods at the cannery, cook with chefs, and visit a farmers market.

Georgia: I’m currently working on the logistics of the Rabun county garden which includes meeting with the principals and teachers to discuss how to incorporate the garden into lesson plans. The garden is part of the program we started in Rabun County this year.  We do taste tests once a month in a rotation so there is a taste test every three months at each school. We are currently planning a harvest celebration for the fall. I would also like to do more training with the cafeteria staff on how to use different vegetables.  Ultimately, Maggie and I’s focus is on strengthening relationships between people so that the Farm to School program will be sustainable.

What is needed to help other school districts start or sustain their Farm to School programs?

Maggie: Enthusiasm is needed to start-up a program, particularly someone that is ready to just jump in and get it going.  A program can be initiated by anyone in the school with the dedication to make it happen – students, parents, teachers, or school nutrition staff.  It is certainly beneficial to engage the superintendent, school nutrition director, and principals in adopting Farm to School in a school or district.

Georgia: Terri Hamlin started the program by contacting people non-stop and was really great about bringing people together and getting them to be proactive. It is important to get the word out, generate interest, and get key players involved including community partners, principals, and nutrition directors.

In Rabun County we’re still working on these connections. The main thing is just having a couple of people in the school that are interested in the program. It doesn’t help to go into a school where there is no interest. You really need to look at the individual school and see what their needs are and what is viable for them. Then, people are more willing to listen to you about what you can offer them and how you can benefit the school. That is how you build interest and supporters.

What is your favorite thing about Farm to School?

Maggie: My favorite part of farm to school is the excitement that I see in kids to eat fresh fruits and vegetables that are brought in by a local farmer, grown in their school gardens, or cooked by the students.

Georgia: I really love the taste tests because they bring the different groups together: students, school staff, farmers, and volunteers. A lot of students are not really sure what they’re getting into but they have great reactions to it. It is great to be on the ground and see how the program benefits the school and local agriculture. Supporting the local agricultural community starts with young kids.

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