By State School Superintendent Dr. John Barge and Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black
Students at Colquitt County High School are growing vegetables in a campus greenhouse to help supply the school’s cafeteria with fresh produce. Last fall, Cobb and Gilmer county school cafeterias featured apples grown by Georgia farmers to teach students about the important role farming plays in the state’s economy.
Northwest Whitfield High School is partnering with local farmers to stock the lunchroom with fruit and vegetables grown just down the road – instead of across the country. Phoenix High School in Gwinnett County features a vending machine regularly stocked with Georgia-grown produce like in-season peaches and apples.
These innovative approaches are just a small part of the growing list of Farm to School programs in school districts across the state that are working to connect more children to Georgia-grown fruits and vegetables.
Schools in Georgia serve delicious, nutritious meals to students every day. In fact, 170 schools in the state have received HealthierUS Schools Challenge grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means they have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity. Farm to School programs can help with that goal by providing fresh food for school cafeterias while teaching students about science and agriculture, as well as bolstering the state’s top industry.
During a recent Farm to School event at Chesnut Charter Elementary in DeKalb County, Georgia-grown strawberries were a big hit with K-3 students who chowed down on the sweet fruit so readily that the cafeteria ran out before the fourth-graders arrived for lunch. The disappointed students asked that the school order more strawberries from Georgia farmers.
To keep Georgia a step above the rest, the state departments of Education and Agriculture have teamed up in a combined effort to increase our knowledge so that we may better assist each and every school district in facing the challenges often associated with implementing a Farm to School initiative. The “Feed My School” for a Week program, originally piloted in three schools, has now expanded to five schools across the state.
There are many challenges associated with a school district offering healthy options – especially when it comes to providing fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables on cafeteria trays. We understand common dilemmas include budget costs, purchasing, storage, equipment, staff preparation and training, food safety and, of course, food availability in general. With “Feed My School for a Week,” we help schools navigate and succeed in this process.
And as of this month, more than 20 districts across the state have signed the “5 Million Meals” pledge at Georgia Organics, promising to serve meals that include fresh, local produce. School nutrition directors who signed the pledge last year are helping newcomers find ways to use locally grown food in their cafeterias.
For school districts that need help navigating the maze of federal regulations for school nutrition, the Department of Education developed a Farm to School Handbook. The manual includes an annual harvest calendar for Georgia crops and tips on following federal guidelines.
Farm to School programs not only boost economic development by supporting local farmers, but the programs also create learning opportunities for students taking science, agriculture and engineering classes. Students who are learning to grow tomatoes, collard greens and potatoes in school gardens watch weather forecasts, research healthy fertilizers and study how plants use photosynthesis to grow.
What’s more, students who eat more fresh fruits and vegetables enter the classroom better prepared to learn and they learn better eating habits, which can help curb the growing obesity problem in Georgia. They learn that fresh food not only tastes better but is better for you. The students learn to appreciate the healthy fruits and vegetables they may not see at home.
These Farm to School programs are critical in so many ways to keeping Georgia’s students healthy and the state’s booming farm economy strong. For Georgia, where agriculture is the No. 1 industry bringing in almost $69 billion annually, Farm to School programs mean raising a generation of Georgians who understand the importance of buying locally grown produce.
But for students, who are giving rave reviews of the fresh fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias, the bottom line is simpler: We need to order more strawberries.
Matt Cardoza, GaDOE Communications Office
Dorie Turner Nolt, GaDOE Communications Office