Local farms and schools — partners in sound nutrition

City of Decatur students learn about Farm to School concepts.
City of Decatur students learn about Farm to School concepts. Photo courtesy of Lucia Pawloski

Lucia Pawloski’s son Lucas is known as the Nutritionist.

At 5 years old, Lucas tells his family which vitamins are in fruits and vegetables.

Lucas and his brother understand that “eating nutritious meals will help their body, mind and development,” said Pawloski, who is on the Decatur Farm to School Committee.

Her family is just one of hundreds who are reaping the benefits of the Decatur Farm to School initiative.

The City Schools of Decatur approved a three-year Farm to School program for all its schools in 2009.

The initiative’s goal is to link schools with local farms to serve healthy food in school lunchrooms to improve children’s nutrition and support local farmers. It was created to provide health and nutrition education experiences that kids will carry with them for life.

Parents volunteer, some teachers create nutritional and agricultural lesson plans, and kids help plant gardens and harvest their own vegetables. And the City Schools of Decatur nutrition department works to stay in line with federal regulations while making food in cafeterias healthier.

Through Farm to School, the Decatur community is attempting to reduce obesity and promote lifelong healthy habits.

“We are trying to connect our schools with local farms for the kids to get a better understanding of the food they are putting in their bodies, and that their decisions not only have an impact on their well-being but also impact the community and environment around them,” Pawloski said.

Several organizations support Farm to School, including Georgia Organics, as well as the Decatur Education Foundation, which first got the initiative under way with a $10,000 Kaiser Permanente grant.

Farm to School costs more than a normal school food program, but the difference is made up by sponsorships, grants and fundraisers.

Allison Goodman, Decatur Schools’ nutritional director and a DF2S committee member, traveled to a conference before DF2S started, and she met people from Virginia and Vermont who had been involved in Farm to School programs for several years.

Every state has Farm to School programs. Nationally, there are more than 2,500 programs, with nearly 1,000 schools and 2,500 school districts participating, according to the National Farm to School Network. In Georgia, there are nearly 100 schools involved with Farm to School.

Goodman said she has learned that a little bit goes along way in promoting locally grown food for students.

“They told me that if you put fresh local peppers on a slice of pizza, you’re doing something. . . . It takes baby steps.”

What is local food?

According to Goodman, at least 30 percent of produce in Decatur City schools is local, which means it came from the Southeast.

The definition of “local” has had to change from a few generations ago. Some of Georgia’s urbanized counties, such as DeKalb, where the city of Decatur is located, have virtually no working farms left — and no children of farmers attending their schools. But it’s easier than it once was to transport farm products from other parts of the state and region.

“Whenever we can get it, we use it,” Goodman said. “I would love for us to get to the point that we could totally get away from pre-made food and do everything fresh.”

School menus are planned in each district’s nutrition coordinator’s office.

“We did away with the a la carte line with the push from parents,” Goodman said. “I thought I was going to be in trouble, but actually we picked up all the revenue in student meals.”

The a la carte line used to hold pizza, french fries, cookies and ice cream, which were available every day to the students for lunch. But now, such foods are available only on Fridays, which the students consider “cheat days.”

“The kids balked a little bit, but they really enjoy home-cooked meals; they love the salad bar,” Goodman said.

The high school, middle school and 4/5 Academy all received a grant for fresh salad bars from Whole Foods Market. Although a lot of work goes into maintaining the salad bars, Goodman said, it is definitely worth it.

“I love to go to the 4/5 Academy and see them make their trays,” she said. “It’s amazing, they learn a whole different way to eat.”

Aside from the salad bars, the Decatur schools offer a Produce of the Month, which is cooked in several ways throughout the month.

For example, a month of carrots could be raw carrots one week, purple cabbage and carrot slaw the next week, and carrot puree the following week. Goodman said providing kids with variety and showing them there are several ways to eat fruits and vegetables makes a difference.

The Farm to School program has gained a presence in the academic curriculum.

“Some children in the classes might make posters or graph data, or write a persuasive argument about why kids should eat more veggies or a particular one,” said Myriam Dormer, youth programs manager for Wylde Center, a nonprofit that promotes green space.

Several teachers, including Tabitha Wiedower, a third-grade teacher at Glennwood Elementary School, agree to take workshops and formulate lesson plans to teach their students Farm to School concepts.

“I once used our third-grade objectives on soil to teach several lessons about how you can grow different things in different soils and how we might use science to change the acidity or test for alkaline,” Wiedower said. “We also talked about the different regions in Georgia and what grows where.”

Gardens in the schoolyard

Additionally, Decatur teachers can take their classes outdoors into gardens, which are now found at all the city’s schools.

“Twice a year, we have the kids plant their own seeds, maintain and take care of them, harvest them and then we have a taste test,” Pawloski said. “This is a way to connect the kids with the outdoor gardens and then with the cafeteria, and make it a more holistic approach.”

“For example, the first time we grew kale, parents were saying, ‘I don’t know what you did, but my kids want kale,’ and the whole family ends up loving it,” Pawloski said. “It’s that kind of excitement we are trying to generate . . . and to let the kids be exposed to things they haven’t been exposed to before.”

“The younger kids are just so jazzed to be playing in the dirt and picking up plants, they are more absorbed in the here and now,” she said.

And Wiedower said her third-graders love discovering that vegetables like Brussels sprouts, kale and radishes can taste delicious.

“Many children have never tried something like kale before, and this is a great way for us to open their minds and mouths,” Wiedower said.

Students will often take ideas home to their families, asking for certain vegetable to be part of mealtime. Pawloski said her kids are now more likely to at least try different produce.

“Interestingly, for all the times I try to get creative with the vegetables, my kids have preferred them minimally prepped — raw or steamed,” she said.

Word of the Decatur program has traveled to other schools in surrounding counties, and The Wylde Center is now working on creating more Farm to School partnerships with them.

Logistics still a barrier

Melanie Hollingsworth, the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s nutritional and educational coordinator, said Farm to School is a prime example of how communities can make such a program work.

But there are a few obstacles. According to Goodman, one issue is the lack of kitchen equipment in some of the schools.

The high school, middle school and fourth- and fifth-grade academies all have adequate kitchens. But the elementary school kitchens were built as “heat and eat” facilities, without the necessary equipment to prepare food from scratch, Goodman said.

Hollingsworth said the Department of Agriculture’s involvement with the Farm to School movement includes finding farmers who want to be a part of the mission and grow produce in large quantities for schools. She said the department is working to providing farmers with assistance in making any necessary changes.

“We are looking at helping them form farmers’ co-ops,” she said. “And we are really looking at the food safety part of it — transportation, awareness, availability and seasonality.”

And Hollingsworth is working to shorten bid contracts to make meals fresher and less processed, and in turn, generate local dollars and strengthen the economy. She and the DOA are trying to make sure they implement realistic and effective Farm to School plans.

For the time being, Pawloski said the Farm to School program is dependent on the energy, enthusiasm and support of the volunteers and nonprofits.

“If it wasn’t for our community and our parents and our students, this would not be possible,” Pawloski said.

Caroline Young is a journalist and yoga teacher who recently moved back to Atlanta after studying journalism and Spanish at Flagler College.