The green beans occupy just a small corner of the plastic plate, barely visible next to the pile of mac and cheese, but Casey spots the veggies right away, and an impish smile indicates that this three-year-old is ready for battle.
“That’s yuck,” he says.
I’m ready to go mano a kiddo, not because I’m a glutton for punishment, but because I know he eats some vegetables at school. He not only eats them, he helps plant and harvest them. That’s thanks to the Farm to School program run by the Wylde Center and City Schools of Decatur.
The program is part of a nationwide effort to improve student nutrition by connecting schools to local farms and teaching children about healthy food, farming, and gardening. Such programs are in place in all fifty states and in forty of Georgia’s school districts. Decatur’s version, which started in 2009, is a standout, says Erin Croom, director for Georgia Organics’ Farm to School Program, which helps implement school initiatives statewide.
“Decatur was the first school system in Georgia to adopt a comprehensive, system-wide program,” Croom says. “There are a lot of schools and districts doing certain components, but Decatur has implemented elements in every one of its schools.”
My son’s school, College Heights Childhood Early Learning Center on McDonough Street in Oakhurst, operates a sizable garden with several beds that have yielded such crops as sweet potatoes and collards. The children dig in the dirt, help plant the seeds, water the vegetables, and assist in harvesting them. The best stuff finds its way onto students’ plates—and into the curriculum.
The program focuses on four Cs: cafeteria (buying locally), classroom (connecting the curriculum to gardening, food, and farming education), culinary (hands-on food activities), and community (field trips to farms and other community resources). “Decatur is doing a great job meeting all four Cs,” Croom says. “The school system is involved on every level.”
Coordinating the effort is Decatur’s Wylde Center (based in what formerly was called the Oakhurst Community Garden), which teaches environmental awareness through gardening and outdoor education. In one component of the program, produce grown in the individual schools’ gardens is used as a teaching tool—then later harvested for a system-wide taste test.
Take turnips, the focus of one planting season. Some of the students at College Heights made posters with five fun facts about the root vegetable. (Did you know the first jack-o’-lanterns were carved out of turnips? I did not.) They tasted the turnips, then—in the case of the youngest kids— registered their pleasure or dislike by choosing a slip of paper with either a smiley face or a sad face and placing it into a bucket. Astonishingly, more than 78 percent of the children responded to turnips with smiles.
“The average Decatur student knows what spinach is and where it comes from, and that impacts whether they are going to eat it or not,” Croom says. “That’s a direct impact of Decatur’s dedication to the Farm to School Program.”
While such success might not be a complete surprise in a place like the City of Decatur—known for its crunchy-liberal population and its small (4,200-student) school system—Farm to School programs have also been implemented in larger, more socioeconomically diverse systems.
In Cobb County’s 106,000-student district, for example, schools feature a fresh, locally grown fruit or vegetable on their cafeteria menus every month, highlighting the farm of origin. Georgia-grown squash was September’s featured veggie.
“Any school district can participate in this program on some level,” Croom says. “Every bit helps.”
This article originally appeared in our November 2013 issue.