September 16, 2015
“We can’t always get the kids to the farm, but we can bring the farm to the kids!” — Cleta Long, Nutrition Director, Bibb County School District
From school gardens to farmer talks, more and more students in Georgia are learning where food comes from in school classrooms and cafeterias. The luckiest even get to take field trips to farms to interact with animals and sample spring strawberries. These recent developments are a result of Georgia’s farm to school efforts. Farm to school in Georgia has been growing rapidly; this year farm to school projects across the state will help ensure that over 15,000 children learn how food is produced and have access to at least one healthy meal a day.
Building the Capacity of Farm to School Programs
As the organization that started the first state-wide farm to school program, Georgia Organics knows that there is more to agriculture in the “big peach” than those delicious summer peaches. Georgia Organics supports farm to school efforts across the state by working closely with school district leaders and state-wide partners to grow these programs. They also serve as the National Farm to School Network’s Georgia state lead.
Georgia Organics’ Farm to School Coordinator, Emily Cumbie-Drake, says that their “Golden Radish Award,” awarded in collaboration with Georgia’s Departments of Agriculture, Education, and Public Health, recognizes and celebrates the farm to school efforts of school districts in Georgia. Thirty-nine school districts receive the award at a ceremony at the State Capitol during National Farm to School Month. The ten-part criteria for the Golden Radish Award has become a tool that schools are using to plan their future farm to school efforts. According to Cumbie-Drake, “school districts have started using the Golden Radish’s comprehensive criteria to structure their farm to school programs.” Likewise, in the upcoming year, Georgia Organics plans to use what they’ve learned from Golden Radish schools to conduct workshops and trainings for educators and staff within Golden Radish districts to help support and strengthen their efforts.
Bringing the Farm to the Kids
The Bibb County School District in Central Georgia has won awards for their farm to school program, including the USDA’s Southeast Regional Best Practices Award for Farm to School. In addition to growing some of their own food in school gardens, Bibb County schools feature local food items weekly and ensure the farm to school program is integrated into the daily curriculum. They also host a number of special events throughout the year that include the broader school community, farmers, and families.
For the last two years Bibb County schools have participated in GA Dept. of Agriculture’s “Feed My School for a Week” event, a week-long celebration of Georgia food. As part of the program, a Bibb County elementary school used only food from Georgia for a week, going even so far as to purchase the flour used in their baked goods from a farm in Southern Georgia. Classes joined in a parade where they dressed as farmers, dairy cows, fruit ninjas, animals, veggies, and milk. The event proved educational as well as enjoyable: based on surveys conducted before and after, “Feed my School” significantly increased students’ knowledge of GA food and where it comes from.
Overall, Cleta Long, the Nutrition Director for the Bibb County School District, says the goal of Bibb County’s Farm to School Program is not simply to teach students about farm to school, but to allow them to “see what farm to school really is.” A big part of this is giving students the opportunity to learn directly from farmers and to engage with farm animals, farm equipment, and produce in a hands-on way. Long makes sure that students get out on farm field trips during strawberry season, but when that’s not possible, she says they do their best to “bring the farm to the kids.”
Naomi Davis, owner and operator of Davis Farms, is one of the farmers who helps students experience the farm at school; she drops by occasionally to speak with students about how eggs are produced. Davis is unique, however, in that she also uses her eggs as a metaphor to tell a story about diversity. The first time Davis came to speak, she gathered eggs from her own chickens and from other farmers in the area to use as a visual aid. As she thought about lesson plans, she looked at the eggs: oblong, fat, small, large, blue, brown, speckled, and white–they were all different–and she realized that what all of them had in common was their diversity. A perfect opportunity for a dual lesson. Now every time she comes to a school, she brings along a few hens from her farm flock and a basket full of their eggs. Davis asks the children:
“‘What are these animals?’ And they say, ‘chickens!’
She asks them ‘What do they do?’ And they say, ‘Lay eggs!’
Then she says, ‘Are the eggs all the same color?’ And the students respond ‘No!’
‘Are they all the same size?’ ‘No!’
‘Are you all the same color?’ ‘No!’
‘Are you all the same size?’ ‘No!’
‘Well, these are all eggs,” Davis says, “they all came from chickens, just like we’re all people of different shapes, sizes, colors. This is diversity, this is how we keep the human race moving forward, this is very important.’”
Bringing Kids to the Farm
Debra Elliott and her husband, Russ, began hosting Bibb County students on their farm 19 years ago, long before farm to school became a movement. They now participate in Bibb and Crawford Counties’ farm to school programs through hosting field trips, bringing farm animals and equipment to classrooms for Farm to School Day, and and selling produce to schools.
Originally it was Elliott who initiated contact with the schools, inquiring if she could sell them strawberries and asking if students would like to visit the farm. During peak harvest time, the Elliotts were finding that they frequently had more strawberries than they knew what to do with. Having small children at the time, Elliott saw schools as a natural outlet to both expand their markets and to provide an educational opportunity for students. Thanks to their relationship with the schools, the Elliotts no longer have difficulty selling their extra strawberries, and the schools have loved the field trips so much that teachers now call to book in January!
When students come out to Elliott Farms, they get to learn about how the strawberries they eat for lunch grow. They also go on a hayride to check out all the farm activities, and on occasion even get to bottle-feed a calf. The Elliotts try to emphasize a variety of educational elements during the visit, having the students do math problems like calculating the number of strawberries in a row in addition to learning about the science involved in growing produce. Elliott says that she thinks the farm to school program has really helped increase children’s knowledge of farming. When they come to the farm, she says that many students “still don’t know what most animals really look like, they’ve maybe just seen them in cartoons,” and they really benefit from seeing the animals first-hand.
Farm to School Challenges
Unfortunately, maintaining farm to school programs is not always easy. One of the biggest issues for the Bibb County Farm to School Program is the availability of local food. While more and more farmers are getting involved with farm to school programs, Long says that despite Georgia being one of the country’s prime states for peach production, she can get often California peaches more easily than she can get them from Georgia.
Price can also be a difficulty. Schools are often working off a shoestring budget and it hasn’t been easy for Bibb County schools to afford food from their area. Bibb County’s budget for school lunch allows only about $3 per student, a small amount if the goal is to feed everyone a completely fresh meal. Davis underscores how difficult it can be for schools to afford fresh food and notes that “my main problem with farm to school is it’s just a drop in the bucket.” But Davis also acknowledges that “Farm to school is [still] in its infancy” and says: “I’m interested to see how it progresses…I think it’s important and it needs to be expanded in every way possible.”
The Importance of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR)
To help defray the costs of purchasing local food and to support the expansion of farm to school programs, monetary support is available to schools in the form of Farm to School grants. Thanks in part to an NSAC-led campaign, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) included mandatory funding for Farm to School programs for the first time. This funding is available in the form of grants to schools, nonprofits, local agencies, tribal organizations, and farmers, to help support farm to school programs. The grants, once awarded, can be used to procure more local food, expand educational programs centered around food systems, purchase equipment, and/or to develop partnerships and program logistics.
Another Georgia farm to school champion, Vanessa Hayes and the Tift County School District, is expanding and strengthening their work with farmers and students thanks to a F2S grant. Read highlights of Hayes’ remarks at a Congressional briefing in 2015 via this post.
While Bibb County has not directly received any money via Farm to School grants, they indirectly benefitted in their early years by working with Mulberry Street Market who had received a Farm to School grant. Bibb County’s work with Mulberry Street market helped form the basis of their current farm to school program.
Support for the Farm to School Act of 2015 Needed!
Today, however, the demand for Farm to School grant money is 5 times greater than the amount available. The Farm to School Act of 2015, part of the reauthorization of the CNR that’s happening this year, will increase funding for the Farm to School grant program from $5 million to $15 million. It will also expand the program to include preschool and after-school programs, improve participation from beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and increase access to funds for tribal schools and producers.
The Farm to School Act of 2015 has a number of ardent supporters in Congress including USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Vilsack has made a number of recent remarks (at the Center for American Progress on Sept 1st and at the National Press Club last week) on important advancements made by the HHFKA and the need for CNR support and expansion. He has also recognized Farm to School programs as opportunities that help schools meet new nutrition standards under the HHFKA.
The Administration, NSAC, and others are calling on other members of Congress to show their support for CNR. By supporting the Farm to School Act of 2015 and including it in the Child Nutrition Act reauthorization this year, Congress can ensure that more children are able to participate in farm to school programs like those in Bibb County.
You can join us in urging Congress to support the Farm to School Act of 2015 by adding your name to our citizen sign-on letter.