By Jill Agin
Georgia’s children are 3rd in the nation for childhood obesity, with 37 percent of children between the ages of 10 and 17 overweight or obese, according to the Robert Wood Johnson report, “F, as in Fat.”
Health and nutrition experts are increasingly linking this epidemic to another disturbing statistic, courtesy of the U.S.D.A.: only 2 percent of children eat a diet that meets the Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations.
More than 30 million children eat school food five days a week, 180 days a year, making school meals a vital part of any healthy solution. Farm to school programs encourage consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, studies have shown.
And, when kids can link the school’s salad bar with the school garden they’ve planted, something clicks. Students learn where their food comes from. They learn about nutrition. Taste tests show them that fresher is better. The compost pile over near the garden lets them watch an important natural cycle right before their eyes.
When schools contract with local farmers for their cafeteria food, farm to school programs not only help improve the health of kids, they also create new market opportunities for the farmers.
For example, on average, farmers and ranchers receive only 20 cents of every food dollar that consumers spend on food. But with farm to school programs, the farmer may receive 60 to 75 cents of each dollar.
Here in Georgia, farm to school initiatives are spreading like wildfire. The city school systems of Atlanta and Decatur, and the county school systems in Newton, Gwinnett, Cobb, Tift and Douglas counties have all launched farm to school elements.
The statewide Farm to School Alliance has gained momentum over the last two years, and some key players are driving these connections. In partnership with Georgia Organics, Dr. Teri Hamlin, (pictured at left) a staff member of Georgia’s Agriculture Education Program, is “developing and conducting state-wide teacher trainings which expose, educate, and train our teachers in the locally grown and farm to school ideology.”
Presently, there are more than 30 agriculture education teachers who have broadened their curriculum to include school gardens, harvest production, food preparation and preservation, and nutritional value of locally grown foods.
“We know from solid research that locally grown, fresh food has a positive effect on our behavior, memory, attention, and cognitive skills,” Hamlin says. “Our goal now is to teach this to the students.”
Three years ago, Georgia Organics established the Barbara Petit Pollinator Award to honor an individual or organization for outstanding leadership in Georgia’s sustainable farming and food movement.
The award acknowledges exceptional leaders who have shown consistent, deep dedication to the sustainable farming and food movement and inspired individuals or groups to become active participants in the movement.
At the 2011 Georgia Organics Annual Conference, Hamlin was given the Petit Pollinator Award based on her work organizing Future Farmer of America (or FFA) competitions, coordinating farm to school workshops on in the heat of the summer, and driving across the state to support her teachers—usually with her truck full of plants.
She holds two key positions: coordinating the programming of High School Agriculture Educators (usually the FFA coaches) and is a professor at the University of Georgia where she teaches and grooms students who want to become agriculture educators.
In short, she is the gatekeeper for future, young Georgia farmers. She works with over 340 middle and high school teachers and over 30,000 FFA students in Georgia.
She is a tremendous advocate for agriculture education in Georgia schools. She builds bridges.
She has been persistent in her quest to find common ground between organic and conventional agriculture, and found creative ways for these two groups to partner.
Allison Goodman, (pictured on right) nutrition director of Decatur City Schools, implements the Decatur City School Farm to School Program in all the system’s cafeterias. All grade levels are participating, from the Early Childhood Learning Center to the high school, with more than half of the schools maintaining a garden and participating in planting, growing, and harvesting the produce.
While the challenges still lie in the areas of labor and budget, the successes of the program are witnessed in the volume of students enjoying the new menus. For example, a “Fast ‘n Fresh Bar”, at the middle and high schools, consists of a daily salad bar with a rotating potato, sandwich, or pizza bar. Goodman sees firsthand the students enjoying the assembly of their own entrees. Even the adults in the schools are benefiting from the fresh food being served, which solidifies the importance of local food helping to feed a community.
Goodman recalls, “When I first started this job, it was more about serving the students food you knew they would eat and to make sure they were getting at least one healthy meal a day. Today, we are working much harder to get the children to make better choices…teach them where their food comes from, and what it takes to grow and prepare it.”