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When Columbus Food Oasis & Farm to School Collide

Renee De Shay

South Columbus Elementary students prepare school-grown kale for a taste test. “Farm to school programs are creative and fun, they allow for children to learn about science, math, art, social studies, English, and music inside and outside the classroom. It is a true take home lesson.”- Abeika Alexander, Muscogee County School District parent involved in school gardens.

How do you build a lasting Farm to School program? This question is faced by any school that has experienced the struggle of maintaining a program through numerous leadership changes resulting from staff, student, and parent turnover. Columbus, Ga. has discovered the answer lies in strong community partnerships and coordination from all sides of the food community.

Like many cities and towns across Georgia, Columbus has many grassroots initiatives to promote local food, gardening, and healthy eating, such as school gardens and farmers markets. The local Farm to School programs show inspiring progress year after year. The Muscogee County School District has consistently advanced through the Golden Radish Award Levels since 2016. This year, they will be awarded Gold. The DoDEA GA/AL School District, which includes schools from three nearby military bases, will receive its second Honorary award thanks Stowers Elementary School’s Farm to School program. Stowers is located on the Fort Benning base just south of Columbus.

However, these activities alone do not tell the whole story. “Probably in a lot of communities, you have these things going on. You have school gardens and farmers markets everywhere,” said Anne Cumbie, former UGA Extension agent in Columbus. “But unless you have some sort of mechanism that ties everything together, these grassroots initiatives stay at the seedling level and end up sort of fading away.”

Students at Stowers Elementary on Fort Benning enjoy their school garden!

The mechanism Anne is referring to is the Columbus Food Oasis, a coalition connecting people from Columbus and its surrounding counties to local food. It provides a platform to turn isolated grassroots initiatives into a sustainable program. For 2019, their strategic focus has been strengthening Farm to School and urban and local agriculture. Through their efforts, Farm to School is becoming more sustainable and integrated into the community.

The following snapshots illustrate how a parent, the Columbus City Council, and the Columbus Botanical Garden are creating the infrastructure for a lasting Farm to School program in this area.

Muscogee parent shares passion for urban agriculture with students

“My goal is to make school gardens survive by teaching the community that cultivating a garden is a valuable skill to be used outside the garden as well.” Abeika Alexander

Abeika Alexander has been an urban agriculturist for 17 years. She has four children in the Muscogee County School District. Starting in her backyard, she created her first garden to teach her children to love the earth and growing their own food, as well as involve them in social justice movements, such as addressing food apartheid. Later, she expanded her garden to the neighboring plot in order to be able to provide food for her neighborhood.

As she became more involved in the broader community, she joined the Columbus Food Oasis. Then, she became a Special Education ParaProfessional at Baker Middle School, which began her involvement with Farm to School. She started an afterschool program for Baker Middle School to teach boys how to build container gardens and irrigation systems. This program extended into a summer program on gardening, where she continued to teach students from Baker, and other schools throughout Muscogee County. Through this program, she created two school gardens.

Abeika is actively working to change the norm of gardens that fade away from neglect. “So many times our community gardens and school gardens become inactive and we must change this culture,” she said. “My goal is to make school gardens survive by teaching the community that cultivating a garden is a valuable skill to be used outside the garden as well.” These soft skills include effective communication, teamwork, dependability, adaptability, conflict resolution, flexibility, leadership and problem-solving, all of which are necessary for personal and professional success.

Abeika explained that Farm to School programs can build social connections within the community, which helps Columbus Food Oasis educate children on cultivating food and making healthier food choices. Ultimately, these connections and education make a community more food secure. “Children who are involved in Farm to School programs often will teach friends and family about cultivating food, helping our community as a whole,” said Abeika.

Columbus City Council proclaim October Farm to School Month

As Muscogee’s Farm to School program grew, the local government recognized the hard work of its leaders. Last fall, Nutrition Specialist Nelson Reames and Muscogee County school nutrition staff advocated for the Columbus City Council to issue a proclamation declaring October Farm to School Month. The proclamation also highlighted the main accomplishments of the Muscogee County School District Farm to School program.

Anne Cumbie explained, “The idea was just to not-just pat ourselves on the back entirely, but to let the people in charge know what we’re doing – to get the numbers and all the details in front of them so they knew that the school district served 6 million meals with locally grown produce.”

All the school cafeteria directors, master gardeners and Food Oasis committee attended the City Council meeting to support the proclamation. The proclamation raised the visibility of the Muscogee’s Farm to School program and the Columbus Food Oasis in the local media.

Good neighbors: Columbus Botanical Garden and Blanchard Elementary

The Columbus Botanical Garden is across the street from Blanchard Elementary, an ideal placement for a Farm to School partnership. Stefan Bloodworth, Executive Director of the Columbus Botanical Garden and part of a steering team at Columbus Food Oasis, is passionate about ecology and reconnecting children and adults with nature. He recently hired Dawn Grantham, the former principal of Blanchard, as the new Children’s Education Coordinator at the botanical garden. Her 30 years of experience working for the Muscogee County School District made her the perfect choice to advance the botanical garden’s partnership with the school district, and specifically with Blanchard.

As a former designer of school gardens, Stefan noticed that they often fell apart over time as a result of turnover between parents, students, and school staff. Moreover, care for a garden can be challenging for school staff that already have a lot on their plate. Recognizing these challenges, Stefan and Dawn want the Columbus Botanical Garden to be “Blanchard’s garden.”

To that end, they plan to build a path between Blanchard and the botanical garden so students will see it as an extension of their campus. They are currently designing a natural history-themed children’s garden, incorporating feedback collected from first graders at Blanchard.

Aside from work with Blanchard, Dawn is currently taking calls from other schools in the Muscogee district to answer questions and give advice about starting school gardens. She will also visit schools to get a sense of what they need in order to make the school garden program sustainable. She believes school gardens have a lot of potential to enhance curriculum, provide social and emotional education, and supplement the school cafeteria. She and Stefan are interested in ways school gardens can benefit the community and interface with the urban agriculture theme in Columbus.

The Columbus Food Oasis hopes to expand their Farm to School support to other nearby school districts, including Chattahoochee and Harris Counties. While there is still much work to be done, the Columbus Food Oasis is providing a central place for people to share ideas and coordinate efforts. “The thing about Food Oasis is that it gives people that are coming at the problem from different angles a place to organize and pool their strengths together,” said Anne. “Even though the program is young and growing, to have a place where it all comes together is a big deal.”

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