Picture this. Kids go to school and look forward to eating vegetables for lunch. They pull a purple carrot out of the ground and can’t wait to try it. They show their teacher brand-new bok choy and tell them – the adults – to try some.
Sound like a dream? Visit the DIGS garden at Sharon Elementary School in the south end of Forsyth County and you’ll see for yourself it’s anything but that.
The scene is the opposite of the iconic “you can’t leave the dinner table until you eat you your vegetables” struggle so many parents have endured with their children. It’s the result of a county-wide farm-to-school initiative that has garnered involvement from the top down, from the nutrition department at the Georgia Department of Education to district administrators to schools, right down to the piece of broccoli in the second-grader’s hand. Soon to be eaten, gone and followed by more.
“I do K-5 and depending on what they’re working on, like we’re doing life cycles of a tree with second grade right now. So we planned an extra 15 minutes to let them come out here and touch and explore,” said Kimberly Cooper, who teaches the science lab special at Sharon with Katrina Oliver.
“There’s a lot of push with a lot of information at these kids, and if they can just slow it down and start touching things, that’s when the real connections are made.”
The garden is filled with ingredients that usually cause those “ew, gross, what is that?” marathon dinners. Green things like broccoli, kale, spinach, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, lettuce. Other colored things like blueberries, carrots, beets, onions, corn.
Here’s where it gets even more like a dream to parents. The kids do everything. They harvest. They pull. They water. They collect. They plant. They compost. They grow. They learn.
There is a brownie in the garden, but it’s not what you think. Brownie the hen is one of the chickens they keep in the Cluck Bucket. They lay eggs and eat weeds. Cooper and Oliver were both parent volunteers when they started the garden, but their role has, quite literally, grown into so much more.
“In fourth grade, they’re big right now on habitats and sustaining life and ecosystems. So we split the DIGS into six zones and they had to plan an investigation. What does your zone have that will support life? They started thinking about the food web. What do your chickens need to eat? They won’t just eat stuff we provide them, so when we go around and pick weeds, we throw it in for the chickens to eat. All of a sudden they’re like, ‘can we pick the weeds?’
“’Yah man, have at it.’”
Growing a family
This intertwining of promoting healthy eating with any topic students are learning in the classroom started for Cooper in her own home by cooking with her kids.
“They’re not going to try anything new otherwise,” she said, “but if they help you cook it and help you prepare it, all of a sudden, man there’s ownership there. And they’re into it.”
Then she started getting outside and in the dirt with her daughter, Allie, who is autistic. “I was never this person who liked insects and reptiles and all this stuff, but that was my only way of communicating with her because she was obsessed with it when she was younger.”
She also got into the healthy eating mindset as she tried to figure out possible triggers for her daughter, what foods needed to be cut out, what diet would be best.
Cooper’s son, Mason, helped build a shed for the garden’s supplies for an Eagle Scout project. Both of her kids are at Riverwatch Middle School now – Allie is also in the gifted program – but they still help out. Mason earned his summer money by tending the chickens “because someone needed to take care of it. We come up here all the time.”
Mix that with parent involvement, and you have the recipe for getting kids to eat their vegetables while applying what they learn to school lessons.
“Fourth grade is doing a segment on decomposition,” Cooper said. “We were out here with hand shovels, and you would have thought I let them go gold mining. In the compost. And the whole time they were asking really relevant questions. If you just give them a chance to explore.”
If the food kids harvest in the DIGS garden doesn’t go directly into their mouths, it ends up on their plate in the cafeteria.
Dee Mathis, food services manager at Sharon, takes everything they’ll give her and incorporates it into her menu. She takes lettuce and makes Cobb salads, topped with eggs from Brownie and the other hens. She picks basil and cilantro and makes spaghetti sauce and salsa. She makes kale chips. And students can’t get enough.
When she can’t put items on the menu, she’ll put them in cups and make a topping bar for kids to take. Broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, olives, banana peppers. Never wasted. “We do taste tests, and some of the things they liked you would never expect. Sugar snap peas. Radishes. Things that you wouldn’t think and the kids just took them. Loved ‘em.
“I love this. I actually am from this area. I grew up with a garden, and I still have them … we do homemade vegetable soup and canned green beans, so I think this is great. So my kids were obviously exposed at a young age, and when you have something like this it’s great for kids who don’t otherwise comprehend the farm-to-table, where it comes from and the growing process.”
Farm to the 44,000-plus-table
School gardens and Dee Mathis may teach kids that not all food comes in packages or bags, but they are only supplemental to the meals provided at schools. Mass quantities of produce and ingredients must come from somewhere else.
Usually, that somewhere else is not too far away.
Ayla Heard always gets the first red strawberry harvested at Warbington Farms. She’s 8, and her family has run the farm off Little Mill Road for three generations before her. Her 6-year-old sister, Clare, and a friend get dirty in the crop fields instead of school gardens and play with teeny tiny baby goats instead of chickens.
The local farm provides strawberries to Forsyth County Schools, which distributes food to each of its 34 public schools on a uniform basis.
Valerie Bowers is the head of the farm-to-school operation for the district, and her reason why is simple. “We serve academic excellence. What we’re trying to do is the teachers are teaching the kids, and kids are here the whole entire day, and you can’t get through that day without having something to eat.”
Bowers worked at the state Department of Education from 2008-2012 and saw the growth of the farm-to-school movement explode. “What we learned was kids didn’t really have a good understanding of where food was coming from.”
She said the biggest challenge Forsyth County has in its farm-to-school initiative is its size and finding local vendors who can provide produce for 44,000 students. But that hasn’t stopped her so far.
“One of my favorite stories is from Cumming Elementary,” she said. “They have all these fruits and vegetables, and they had carrots and they harvested a bunch of carrots last year, so much so that we were able to give everybody a taste of a carrot that came out of the school garden.
“And so I was over there helping serve and a little boy came up and he said, ‘I don’t like carrots.’
‘No. I picked them, but I don’t like them.’
‘Well, you’ve got to try it then if you’ve put all that hard work into it.’
“He came back a little later and he said it was the best carrot he ever had and that he liked carrots now, and he was pretty sure it was one that he picked.”