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Children's Health

A hoops legend on the CDC Foundation board

Dikembe Mutombo appears at Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital during a Vaccination Day event.

Dikembe Mutombo appears at Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital during a Vaccination Day event in 2008. Photo courtesy of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation

Dikembe Mutombo was an eight-time NBA All-Star renowned for his defense and shot-blocking skills — and for his wit and sense of humor. Some people who don’t even follow sports recognize the basketball star from his lighthearted appearances on TV.

But few know that the 7-foot-2 Mutombo, who at one time played for the Atlanta Hawks, was recently elected to the CDC Foundation’s board of directors. It happened with almost no fanfare and drew little media attention.

“Dikembe is a global humanitarian, and his passion for helping others is prevalent in all aspects of his life,” says Charles Stokes, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, located in Atlanta.

Mutombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says he has more firsthand knowledge than many Americans about certain situations on the ground around the world, especially in African countries that have been hard hit by disease, civil unrest and natural disasters.

“I have visited all of these places and I have a [deeper] understanding of the world,’’ he told GHN. “For this reason, I believe my experiences will be helpful to the CDC Foundation and its initiatives.”

Mutombo, who has a home in Atlanta, towers over his fellow CDC board members in height, while they look up to him for his lifelong humanitarian work.

 

Never forgetting his roots

 

dikeHe has already made a difference in health care for the country of his birth, among others.

Before 2007, his hometown of Kinshasa, which is also the Congo’s capital, lacked a hospital with the amenities that patients take for granted in the United States.

But in December of that year, the $29 million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital (BMMH) opened in memory of Mutombo’s mother, with funds raised from his foundation.

He told CNN that his mother taught him the importance of helping others.

“For everything she did for her children and for her family, the value of love and giving back and sharing,’’ Mutombo told CNN. “Not just with you, not just with your family, but with the people you encounter in life, with your community, and that was the kind of love that my mom gave.”

According to the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, this first modern hospital for the Congo has already treated more than 100,000 patients.

Dr. Lillian Schapiro, an Atlanta ob/gyn, had the chance to visit the hospital with Mutombo in 2011.

Accompanied by a surgical assistant and another Atlanta ob/gyn, they had the “phenomenal opportunity to see firsthand the modern medicine that this man was able to bring to the people of his hometown,” Schapiro says.

Dr. Lillian Schapiro

Dr. Lillian Schapiro

Before BMMH was built, “you would find families cooking food on an open fire in hospital courtyards, and clean linens were a luxury,” says Schapiro.

Dr. Schapiro and her team performed 23 operations in 10 days at BMMH. But there’s still so much more to do, she says.

Schapiro says she plans to return to the Congo.

“In addition to spending time in Kinshasa, I have also had the privilege of meeting Congolese physicians when they visit Atlanta,” says Schapiro. “Dikembe is an amazing asset and ambassador for Atlanta, helping to bring understanding and solid relationships between the two cities.”

 

A remarkable history

 

Mutombo arrived in the United States in the mid-1980s on an academic scholarship to attend Georgetown University in Washington. In his second year at Georgetown, Coach John Thompson invited Mutombo to try out for the university’s famed basketball team. He made the team – and ended up as a key player for the Hoyas.

Mutombo graduated from Georgetown with dual degrees in linguistics and diplomacy. He is fluent in nine languages, including five African tongues. By 2009, the year he retired from basketball, NBA Commissioner David Stern appointed Mutombo to the newly created position of NBA’s Global Ambassador.

The mission of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, located in Atlanta, is to improve the health, education and quality of life for the people in the Congo.

Mutombo speaks to the Senegalese population about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets.

Mutombo speaks to the Senegalese population about the importance of sleeping under mosquito nets.

During the CDC’s polio eradication efforts there, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation worked closely with the federal agency. At the time, the Congo, a vast nation that has been plagued with wars in some areas, had the most intense polio virus transmission in the world.

Despite the civil unrest and frequent losses of electric power, the campaign to vaccinate children against polio reached 8.2 million of the Congo’s 10 million children in less than five years. More than 16,000 health stations were set up to vaccinate children during the campaign and 75,000 vaccinators delivered polio vaccine to children over a three-day period.

In Atlanta, Mutombo is well known for the time and other support he gives to charities. He’s involved in efforts to supply toys for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Hughes Spalding, and also helps Hosea Feed the Hungry and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. In addition, he makes personal appearances at local schools to encourage academic excellence and motivate students to think globally.

The CDC Foundation and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation believe in the same principles: improving the quality of life for people around the world.

 

 

Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.

 

Medicaid physicians back in same spot after long-awaited raise expires

Dr. Jaquelin Gotlieb examines a new patient, Jada Smith, 5, at her Stone Mountain office

Dr. Jaquelin Gotlieb, shown examining a patient, says that the Medicaid pay bump is a matter of valuing children.

Dr. Michelle Zeanah is getting a big pay cut this month.

It’s not that the Statesboro pediatrician is seeing fewer patients. Just the opposite.

The 12 rural counties surrounding Bulloch County, where Statesboro is located, have no pediatrician. So Zeanah is very much in demand.

Forty percent of her patients have driving distances of 45 minutes or more. A few come from more than 50 miles away.

Dr. Michelle Zeanah

Dr. Michelle Zeanah

Her pay cut involves the Medicaid program. Reimbursements to primary care doctors under Medicaid just went down in Georgia and many other states.

The Affordable Care Act had awarded primary care doctors treating Medicaid patients a two-year pay increase. It was funded entirely with federal money, and pushed their Medicaid pay to the level of Medicare reimbursement.

But that additional Medicaid reimbursement, which went to family physicians, pediatricians and internists, ended Jan. 1. And doctors will be missing it.

“It allowed us to hire more staff so we could serve more patients,’’ Zeanah says. Without it, she adds, “I will have to work 70 hours a week’’ instead of the current 60.

About 70 percent of her patients are covered by Medicaid or PeachCare (the Georgia version of the child health insurance program).

Medicaid, the federal/state program for the poor and disabled, serves more than 1.5 million Georgians. Most are children.

Before the increase, Georgia primary care doctors had gone more than a dozen years since the last Medicaid pay hike.

A few states, including Alabama and Mississippi, have continued giving their primary care doctors the pay hike by using state dollars to fund it.

But Georgia political leaders, on the eve of the 2015 General Assembly, have shown no signs they’ll appropriate money to reinstate the pay hike. The money that would be needed – an estimated $62 million for a year – is not in the Department of Community Health budget being proposed to Gov. Nathan Deal.

Sasha Dlugolenski, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email to GHN in September that Deal was aware of the issue. She called the pay hike expiration “one of the early, blatantly obvious examples of Obamacare unloading costs onto the states. This was a short-term Band-Aid to a long-term problem, and now the states are left holding the bag.”

The federal health law required that the raise be paid for two years, 2013 and 2014. The money actually did not arrive till 2014, but when it did, eligible doctors received the pay hike retroactively to Jan. 1, 2013.

Such delays in the payments occurred in many states, including Georgia, that use managed care in their Medicaid programs.

Practices feel the pinch

The end of the federally funded raise means that Medicaid fees in Georgia will now be reduced by 34.8 percent, according to a recent Urban Institute study.

Some pediatricians describe the pay bump as a children’s health issue. They say children on Medicaid generally have greater health and social needs.

“It’s a matter of valuing children as the future of the state,’’ says Dr. Jaquelin Gotlieb, who practices along with her pediatrician husband, Edward Gotlieb.

“I believe primary care doctors feel a significant responsibility to their patients,” adds Jaquelin Gotlieb, who is 68 and has practiced in Stone Mountain for almost four decades. “That’s why we have hung in there.”

If the pay isn’t restored, she says, “This is going to take some of them and push them over the edge.’’

Dr. Eugene Cindea

Dr. Eugene Cindea

Roughly two-thirds of the Gotliebs’ patients are covered by Medicaid or PeachCare, she says.

Dr. Eugene Cindea, a pediatrician at the Longstreet Clinic in Gainesville, says the extra money “allowed us to expand offerings to patients.”

“It felt good for physicians who were seeing a considerable number of Medicaid patients,” he says.

The goal of the pay hike, Cindea notes, was to increase the number of physicians who accept Medicaid patients.

Without the money, he says, it’s more difficult to devote staff to manage the chronic diseases of children. “It decreases the likelihood that we’ll expand in an underserved area,” he adds.

OB/Gyns were not eligible for the two-year federal pay bump that just ended. Pat Cota, of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, says her organization is asking the state to revive the pay increase and expand it to include OB/Gyns.

The majority of children born in Georgia are covered by Medicaid.

 

 

 

An incentive for doctors

In Alabama, physician participation in Medicaid is a concern. The state says about 22 percent of enrolled primary care physicians now receive 90 percent of all claims payments. The other problem is that Alabama has shortages of health professionals in 62 of its 67 counties.

Niko Corley of the Alabama Medical Association says that “for Medicaid to be as efficient as possible, you’ve got to have physicians managing that care.”

The federal pay hike was supposed to increase doctor participation in Medicaid. But Kaiser Health News has reported that most states say they’ve seen no evidence that it did so — mostly because it was a temporary measure.

“The Medicaid pay boost was never meant to be a silver bullet,” Leonardo Cuello, director of health policy at the National Health Law Program, an advocacy group for low-income Americans, told KHN. Still, he worries about the provider fee cuts. “It won’t sink the ship but . . . I’m concerned it will contribute to access problems.”

Statesboro pediatrician Zeanah notes that many physicians have limited their numbers of Medicaid patients. That’s why her pediatric practice continues to see more patients.

Having the pay hike meant that the practice stopped losing money on delivering vaccines to kids on Medicaid. “We made a tiny profit,’’ Zeanah says.

Not having the pay hike, though, means more hours and less reimbursement. It means Zeanah and her pediatrician partners can’t build an office building to accommodate the growing practice.

Medicaid patients require more work, and are more often late or no-shows due to reasons such as lack of transportation, she says. “We have no social worker available to us. I am the social worker.”

Georgia desperately wants to recruit new physicians, Zeanah notes. “When you don’t have Medicaid payment parity, it makes it hard.”

 

As pedestrian deaths rise, officials look at what can be done

Buford Highway in DeKalb County has a high number of pedestrian accidents.

Buford Highway in DeKalb County has a high number of pedestrian accidents.

 

Fifth-grader Shahbin Hossain and his mother, Samsun Hahar, were recently attempting to cross Durham Park Road in DeKalb County.

A private utility truck hit both of them. Hahar was killed, while her son suffered serious injuries.

Tragedies like this are nothing new in Georgia. One of the state’s most famous people, “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, was fatally struck while walking across an Atlanta street in 1949.

250px-Pedestrian_signal,_Central_ParkBut when it comes to pedestrians injured or killed while walking on or near roadways in Georgia, the recent numbers are troubling.

In 2013, more Georgia pedestrians (182) died in accidents with cars than in any year since 1997.

“About half of the reported injuries and fatalities occur in metro Atlanta, and [some] of the most dangerous roads tend to be suburban arterials like South Cobb Drive and Tara Boulevard,” says Ian Sansom, pedestrian program safety manager for PEDS, an advocacy group dedicated to making the Atlanta region a better place to walk.

The AJC reported that the worst two roads in Atlanta for pedestrian collisions since 2003 are Fulton County’s Peachtree Street, with 178, and DeKalb’s portion of Buford Highway, with 154.

The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety says pedestrians represent 12.3 percent of the total traffic deaths over this past decade. By 2012, people on foot represented nearly 15 percent of all traffic fatalities nationally, according to the “2014 Dangerous by Design” report on pedestrian safety.

The sprawling Atlanta metropolitan area isn’t the worst place to walk in the nation, but it’s ranked as the 8th most dangerous city for pedestrians, according to the Dangerous by Design report. Atlanta is behind four cities in Florida (Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami); as well as Memphis, Birmingham and Houston.

 

Older people at risk

An increase in the number of senior citizens may be why the South ranks high in pedestrian vulnerability. Seniors tend to have slower reaction times, and as they become older, their chances of surviving a serious injury lessen. Plus, the South’s more mild temperatures seem to encourage walkers.

crossCDC findings show that an estimated 52,482 older adults are treated in U.S. emergency rooms each year for non-fatal pedestrian injuries.

Chicago’s Loyola University Health System says senior citizens (people 65 and older) comprise 13 percent of the population, but account for 23 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.

Peripheral vision diminishes as people get older, reflexes slow and the ability to move quickly and in an agile manner decreases. Thus, crossing the road takes longer, and evasive action in the face of danger may be harder to accomplish.

Also at high risk are children and people under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

Cellphone distraction can also create a problem for walkers. Texting while walking can mean falling off a curb or even losing one’s life.

A MARTA (metro Atlanta) bus driver hit and killed a 19-year-old pedestrian as she was crossing Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard on Sept. 24. The bus driver said that the pedestrian was “on her cellphone.” And according to a story in the AJC, he told investigators that he even sounded his horn.

Use of earbuds or earphones can block out warning sounds.

There’s also an economic factor in some pedestrian deaths, because many low-income people are pedestrians by necessity. They often can’t afford cars, and walking a mile or two to work instead of taking the bus can mean a little extra cash for someone in a low-paying job. Being on foot in an area of heavy automobile traffic always carries risks.

 

A statewide problem

Although the Atlanta metropolitan area receives the most notoriety, pedestrians across the state are vulnerable.

Last month, in northwest Georgia, three pedestrians were injured in a parking lot crash at a Calhoun school, according to a Calhoun Times article. Gordon County sheriff’s authorities said it was the result of a driver medical problem.

Beyond the human cost are the dollars for medical care when pedestrians are injured.

While the growth of the older adult population may add to the overall burden of these non-fatal pedestrian injuries, making transportation and mobility improvements — including environmental modifications — can help prevent them.

In his blog, Atlanta area attorney Charles Scholle says walking was once a relaxing and enjoyable way to get around the area. He adds that today, “with the increase in pedestrian injuries, those who are unable to walk on foot and whose mobility depends on a motorized or hand-powered chair may have even greater safety challenges.”

Impact-of-Speed-org

According to the Rome News-Tribune, only Atlanta and the nearby city of Decatur have been designated Walk-Friendly, although pedestrian problems continue there.

Seven cities in Georgia have achieved a Bike-Friendly designation: Athens-Clarke County, Decatur, Milledgeville, Jekyll Island, Tybee Island, Savannah and Roswell. Meanwhile, Rome and Floyd County are looking to become “Walk-Friendly” and “Bicycle-Friendly” communities by 2018, the Rome newspaper reported.

In 1995, the Georgia Legislature changed the crosswalk law mandating that drivers must “stop and stay stopped” for pedestrians, not just yield to them, says the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety for Georgia.

220px-Crosswalk_button_neFor example, it is illegal for drivers to squeeze by, drive around or cut off a pedestrian in a crosswalk, even if there’s room.

In Macon, officials have begun evaluating lighting and safety precautions at those intersections with the highest numbers of pedestrian accidents, according to a Georgia Public Broadcasting article.

The CDC, along with many other organizations, provides pedestrian safety advice:

** When walking at night, carry a flashlight and have some reflective materials on outer garments.

** Cross the street using only designated cross walks (if possible)

** Use sidewalks when available.

** If sidewalks are not available, walkers should be walking on the shoulder of the road facing oncoming traffic while watching out for approaching vehicles.

 

Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.

 

DFCS disciplinary records show child safety challenges

A DFCS worker last year failed to inspect the living conditions in a Gwinnett County home where children under state supervision lived. The home was later found “in a deplorable condition [with] drugs and drug paraphernalia in the home and the water was off,” state records say. “The children were not being supervised.”

The worker received “a memorandum of concern and expectations” from the state Division of Family and Children Services.

A second DFCS worker failed to make timely contact with a couple who lived with their grandchildren in Newton County. “An infant included in this sibling group passed away on November 5, 2013,’’ state records show. “The children still had not been seen in this placement at the time of the child’s death.”

The DFCS worker received a “written reprimand and final warning.”

A third DFCS worker also received a written reprimand after failing to make contact with a Glynn County child who was reportedly not being properly fed by her teenage mother. The child was taken to the hospital “due to serious injury.’’

The three cases were among state records of disciplinary actions against Georgia DFCS workers in 2013. The records were obtained by GHN through an Open Records request.

A GHN analysis of disciplinary actions around the state found many employees received multiple chances – through strongly worded criticisms –to improve their performance before facing termination. They were given conferences, work plans, attendance plans and memoranda of concern before being handed a written reprimand and final warning.

The disciplinary records show many children in a variety of potentially dangerous situations. They also show DFCS workers juggling many cases simultaneously.

 

Child deaths shocked state

 

For years, DFCS has been an agency under pressure, burdened by high caseloads, stagnant pay, and low morale among its workers.

In recent months, though, Georgia’s child welfare system has drawn tougher scrutiny and harsher criticism, particularly after the gruesome deaths of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes in 2013.

The resulting fallout helped lead to increased state hiring of caseworkers and Gov. Nathan Deal’s creation of a council to review the child welfare system, as well as a legislative effort to privatize child welfare services.

A Department of Human Services spokeswoman last week said through an email statement that the current disciplinary process improves DFCS worker performance.

dhslogo“Working with an employee through additional training or monitoring after identifying a performance issue has proven to be an effective way to increase an employee’s skill level and influence future decision-making,” said the spokeswoman, Ravae Graham, in an email to GHN.

Human Services also acknowledged there are fewer caseworkers now handling a surge in the number of child abuse reports.

DFCS currently has 1,962 frontline workers and 409 supervisors working in child welfare. Five years ago, Georgia had 2,228 frontline workers.

The demand for state help, meanwhile,  is growing. DFCS said last week that since a 24-hour central intake line debuted, the agency has received significantly more referrals of abuse and neglect of children. In September 2013, the agency received 5,124 reports of child abuse in Georgia. This past September, that number was 8,572.

Earlier this year, a state report found the deaths of children whose families had DFCS involvement rose to 180 in 2013 from 152 the year before, an 18 percent increase.

(State officials and others, though, have urged caution in making direct comparisons with the figures. Most states are seeing increases, and are attributing the higher totals to better data collection, improved collaboration among agencies, better reporting on deaths, and increased interest from the community.)

 

Complaints over pay, conditions

Starting pay for entry-level DFCS workers is about $28,000 a year, for work in such categories as child abuse and neglect investigations, foster care, and family support.

A recent survey of workers found that about 90 percent with less than six months of tenure said they were somewhat or extremely satisfied with their jobs. But for workers with more tenure, just 40 percent said they were satisfied.

Bobby Cagle

Bobby Cagle

One major complaint involved a lack of raises – or even cost-of-living adjustments – for many years, the survey showed.

And two-thirds said they were sometimes concerned for their personal safety when working in the field.

The same percentage said that they were at least somewhat likely to look for a job outside of DFCS in the coming year.

This past summer, Gov. Deal authorized the hiring of an additional 103 DFCS staff statewide, beyond the 175 additional positions included in the state budget. The agency says it has a commitment from Deal to hire several hundred more staff over the next three years, with the goal of case managers having no more than 15 cases each.

Earlier this year, GHN reported some workers had caseloads of up to 100 or more in metro Atlanta counties – an extremely high number, experts said.

And just last week, DFCS chief Bobby Cagle ordered mandatory overtime for DFCS child protective services investigators to prevent a major backlog of child safety investigations.

Child Protective Services “was in a state of crisis” at the beginning of 2014, says Karl Lehman, CEO of Childkind, a nonprofit that serves children with complex medical challenges or developmental disabilities.

The crisis atmosphere followed a media and public firestorm in 2013 over the deaths of Emani Moss and Eric Forbes, two cases that led to criminal charges against relatives.

 

Disturbing lapses

 

State records of disciplinary actions in DFCS in 2013 include the firing of a Gwinnett County worker and the demotion of two others; and the termination of two Cobb County employees and the demotion of two others.

Emani died in Gwinnett, and Eric was under DFCS supervision in Cobb.

The records of disciplinary actions, including the firings and demotions, did not name any of the children involved in the cases.

childrenplayA total of seven employees were fired or terminated in 2013, the state records show.

Inadequate documentation – occasionally to the point of no documentation – was the most often cited problem among DFCS worker disciplinary actions.

The accuracy of workers’ records of home visits is essential when dealing with the court system, says Lehman of Childkind, which supervises some caseworkers. The documentation also ensures that children are getting services they need and that the state is focused on their well-being, he adds.

Many DFCS employees were cited for failure to make regular contact with families, or for not completing visits as assigned.

Others were cited for unprofessional behavior or chronic absenteeism. At least two were disciplined for misrepresenting facts in cases. Violations included not coming to work on time and aggressive behavior in the office.

In several cases, DFCS caseworkers did not complete quick follow-ups when there were alarming reports of abuse. One case involved a child who suffered a cigarette burn, another a child who had a black eye.

A caseworker in Houston County failed to follow through with an October interview and exam with a child who reported possible sexual abuse. As of Oct. 25, no contact has been made with the child, state records show.

An Effingham County home chosen as a “safety resource’’ for children was discovered to be the same home where DFCS had removed children from an adult caregiver on two separate occasions and had to transfer permanent custody of the children to a relative.

DFCS workers closed a case without observing a family in their Richmond County home. “There were present dangers identified due to domestic violence against the birth father and a ‘no contact’ order,’’ state records say. “The birth father was placed back in the home without services to assist the family or proper assessment to ensure the children were safe.”

 

Making workers better

 

Through the steps of the disciplinary process, a caseworker “can learn valuable lessons and become a valuable caseworker,’’ Lehman says.

With all that a caseworker is asked to do, he says, “it’s a very challenging job even in the best of circumstances.”

Lehman adds that high DFCS turnover and low worker morale should concern the Georgia General Assembly. Funding the program properly is critical, he says. Child protection has suffered, he says, “because Georgia has not invested sufficient resources.”

Gov. Deal has created a council to study Georgia’s child welfare system and come up with ways to protect children better from neglect and abuse.

Gov. Nathan Deal

Gov. Nathan Deal

That committee is creating recommendations to deal with the morale of DFCS caseworkers, large caseloads, stagnant salaries and potential exposure of workers to violence, among other issues.

Stemming the high rate of turnover is vital,  children’s advocates say.

“Personal recognition from inside and outside the department could help reinforce the promise of better things to come,’’ says Pat Willis of Voices for Georgia’s Children, who notes the challenge of reducing caseloads amid high worker turnover.

Georgia’s DFCS measures required by the feds generally compare favorably with other states, Willis adds.

“I am so sympathetic to that DFCS professional who has withstood a social and economic beating while trying to protect children and promote strong functional families,’’ she says. “It’s hard to ask them to hang on a little longer, but we need their leadership to implement the strategies of the commissioner and the recommendations of the Child Welfare Reform Council.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hyacinth Empinado is a freelance journalist in Athens. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia.

Chickens do their part in school program on healthy eating

The chickens at Clarke Middle School serve as a basic introduction to agricultural animals.

The chickens at Clarke Middle serve as a basic introduction to agricultural animals.

Two Thursdays each month, the family and consumer sciences classroom at Clarke Middle School in Athens buzzes with conversations about gardening, recycling, mindful eating, and how families can reduce their carbon footprints.

Each student has an idea about what can or should be done. The sound of their excited young voices mingling together leads a visitor to the room.

Just outside the classroom there’s a chicken coop, which houses two roosters and three hens.

The classroom group, coordinated by family and consumer sciences teacher Hope Zimmerman and agricultural sciences teacher Debra Mitchell, calls itself the Sustainability Corps.

It’s an offshoot of the school garden program, which has grown rapidly since Mitchell started it in 2012.

Mitchell originally came to the school as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. She registered the Clarke Middle School garden with the Edible Schoolyard project, which was started by chef Alice Waters and fosters healthy relationships between children and the food they eat by teaching in a school garden.

Edible Schoolyard currently has 3,797 registered garden classrooms and 476 kitchen classrooms worldwide.

It fits into the nationwide movement to encourage healthier eating, especially among children.

Farm to School, for example, is an initiative that emphasizes not only buying food from local growers, but also teaching children to raise their own vegetables in school gardens. The Georgia effort is led by Georgia Organics, a nonprofit group that promotes Georgia farms and locally grown food.

 

Cooking on wheels

 

Americans eat a varied diet, and crops are seasonal, so schools can’t rely solely on locally produced food. But in a major agricultural state such as Georgia, such food is often available. And Farm to School helps teach urban and suburban kids how important farming continues to be to our state.

The garden fits into Edible Schoolyard’s “kitchen garden” category because it grows produce that is cooked by Zimmerman’s students and is occasionally served at the cafeteria salad bar.

IMG_0594

Debra Mitchell tends to the garden at Clarke Middle School.

Mitchell and her students sell extra produce to shoppers at the West Broad Farmers’ Market, right down the street from the middle school. Mitchell and Zimmerman also hope to launch a student-run restaurant. This summer they brought in local chefs to work with students.

“It’s kind of funny,’’ said Mitchell. “It’s just serendipitous that all these people, all at once and all of these organizations, everybody’s pulling together and saying, ‘hey, well let’s just do it then.’”

School administrators and county nutrition officials actively support the program.

Zimmerman has a full kitchen set up in her classroom, but Mitchell works from a wheeled cart provided by the school. She has made pesto from herbs grown in the garden, cooked eggs laid by the school’s chickens and prepared fried green tomatoes and green beans, all on her mobile cooktop.

Mitchell and Zimmerman say that access to the garden and to fresh eggs have made students more willing to try new things.

Students who are more reserved in a traditional classroom setting gain confidence in the garden as well as the kitchen, get their hands dirty, and become more adventurous, said Zimmerman.

 

Poultry in action

 

The entire program continues to expand, with the chicken coop being one addition. All five of the chickens came to Clarke Middle by way of Hilsman Middle School in Athens.

Having the chicken coop right outside their classrooms allows Mitchell and Zimmerman to teach sustainability and mindful eating in a different way.

The chickens serve as a basic introduction to agricultural animals. Some students have never had any previous experience with livestock. Before they interacted with the little flock of egg producers, many of the children had rarely, if ever, asked questions about where their own food comes from.

Though their eggs are on the menu, the chickens themselves are not.

The students “always say, ‘You’re not gonna eat them, are you?’ and I’ll say ‘Nooooo.’ ’’ Mitchell said. “But then, it’ll be like, ‘but you do know that’s where your Chick-fil-A sandwich came from!’ ”

While the students are fond of the chickens, sometimes their excitement gets the better of them. They need regular reminders not to chase the skittish birds.

“I always tell them, ‘We’ve got to respect the chickens! They’re terrified of us!’ ” Zimmerman said.

Kids in Sustainability Corps gain knowledge and confidence from participating, and Mitchell and Zimmerman hope it continues to expand. People who would like to become involved can buy Clarke Middle School produce at the West Broad Farmers’ Market, volunteer in the garden, and — soon — eat at the student-run restaurant.

Visit Clarke Middle’s Edible Schoolyard page, Athens Farm to School on Facebook, or athensfarmtoschool.org for more information.

IMG_0622

 

Lauren Schumacker is pursuing her master’s in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. She also holds a certificate in culinary arts and enjoys writing about all things food-related.

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