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.
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.
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.