Athens Farm to School–A Local Approach to Childhood Obesity

A dozen small plates sit on a table at the Athens Farmers Market under a sign that reads, “Educational Activity.” On top of each plate is a small pile of a green leafy plant—but it’s not lettuce. It’s Kale. These small sample plates are part of an Athens Farm to School initiative to introduce kids to new healthy foods.

Childhood Health Risk in Georgia

Childhood obesity is a prevalent issue in the state of Georgia with, 40 percent of children ages 10 to 17 being considered overweight according to national statistics. The Athens Farm to School program seeks to address the nutrition concerns of Georgia’s Clarke County Public Schools.

Last month in the Brenda Fitzgerald, commissioner of public health for the state of Georgia raised concerns about Georgia’s childhood obesity rates at the State of Public Health Conference, hosted at the University of Georgia. Fitzgerald cited Georgia’s Student Health and Physical Education Partnership (SHAPE) physical fitness test result for 2012 as a cause for this concern.

Only 16 percent of Georgia’s schoolchildren passed the five-part physical fitness test, said Fitzgerald–with 20 percent of Georgia students failing all five parts of the physical fitness test.

The results of Georgia’s Annual Fitness Assessment Program Report revealed 43 percent of students in 1st-grade through 12th-grade did not meet healthy standards of BMI—a measure of a person’s body weight compared to their height.

These results indicate that over 40 percent of students in Georgia school are considered unhealthily overweight.

Not a single Clarke County Public school was listed on the governor’s SHAPE honor roll which recognizes excellence in physical fitness reporting and student wellness.

Farm to School Program

One step that Clarke County had taken to improve the health of its students is to improve the nutrition of their lunches by incorporating more farm grown fresh items in their cafeterias.

“Farm to School programs connects schools with local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias,” reads the CCSD Farm to School website.

The Athens Farm to School program focuses on, “improving student nutrition, providing health and nutrition education opportunities that will last a lifetime, and supporting local small farmers.”

Farm to School is a national program that is run on a state and regional level across the country. Established in Georgia in 2007 Farm to School programs aim to increase the amount of locally-grown food served in school lunches.

Clarke County serves an estimated 10,000 school lunches per day, with about 78% of its students receiving free or reduced cost lunches.

“Children also learn from their lunches,” said Stacy Smith initiator of the Farm to School Program in Athens. “Being exposed to a well-balanced healthy lunch can help form their future eating habits and exposing them to new vegetables and tastes can make them better eaters now and in the future.”

Smith recognizes obesity as an important statewide issue and poverty as a local issue that can both be addressed by the Farm to School program. “For many kids, the meals they get at school are very important to them, so it is important that they are getting healthy meals.”

Nutrition in Clarke County Schools

The Clarke County School districts employs nutrition directors to develop school lunch menus and a staff of over 20 nutrition managers that address individual schools nutritional needs.

“Our meal pattern requires that at least one entree, two vegetables, two fruits, and milk be offered each day,” said Hillary Savage a nutrition director from the Clarke County School District.

Food served in Clarke County schools is reviewed by two registered dietitians to evaluate its nutritional profile, said Savage. “Nutrient density is key.  We look for well-rounded products that will appeal to students.”

Clarke County posts their cafeteria menus online monthly. The menus highlight the Georgia-grown foods served each month.

“We do not know the exact number [of local foods served] per say, but we try to spotlight a different locally-grown item each week.  These items are generally fruits and vegetables,” said Savage. More of the food served is locally-grown than advertised suspects Savage, including Mayfield Milk and Georgia raised poultry.

Aprils featured local food include, TurnipGreens from Lyons, Cabbage from Moultrie, Carrots from Claxton and Red MuleGrits from Athens Georgia.

Local Farmers

At the Farmers Market a few isles over from the Athens Farm to School tent is a couple selling grits. These Red MuleGrits which are served across the county in student’s lunches are also sold locally from a modest table with a few bags of self-packaged grits at the Athens Farmer’s market.

 The Red Mule Mill is owned and operated by Tim and Alice Mills, with the help of their red mule Luke. The couple sticks to simple organic farming methods to produce the freshest grits possible.

“We grind to order and whereas most stuff already packaged has a long shelf life, this has to be kept refrigerated because we don’t put preservatives in it. It’s natural corn,” said Alice Mills.

Red Mule Mill supplies grits to local restaurants including East-West Bistro and the Five & Ten, as well as locations across 20 states—but for the Athens Farm to School program the most important customer of Red Mule Mills are the children who get to have fresh locally grown food as part of their lunch.

Farm to School Lunches

Like the educational taste testing tent at the Farmers Market, Athens Farm to School encourages local school to host taste testing days with local farmers to get kids to try new healthy foods.

Andre Gallant described Clarke Middles School taste testing in a recent article for the Athens Banner Herald. Gallant ate a typical lunch meal in the Clarke Middle cafeteria.

Gallant raved about the carrots, a Georgia grown staple, featured as a locally grown menu item on the CCSD website. “…the carrots, were phenomenal, braised with some sort indecipherable liquid that extracted the vegetable’s natural sugars. Complete and utter nom-nom.”

When asked about incorporating locally-grown items into school lunches at Clarke Middle School principle Tad MacMillan said, “I think it is very important. Not only does it make economic sense, it supports local businesses and is environmentally wise. I want to see us really expand in this area.”

While solving the problem of childhood obesity requires a collective effort of improved nutrition in children’s’ entire diets along with daily exercise, Athens Farm to School is making an effort to improve at least one meal a day for students with the hopes that exposing students to healthy eating will carry over into their daily health choices.

Athens Farm to School Visual

Proposed Legislation for Reducing Gun Restrictions–What it means for Athens

The trigger is pulled and the gun jerks back. The shell flies out. The bullet travels down the range almost too fast to be seen. The only evidence of the bullet’s presence, a Bang! The sound echoes off the cement walls and a single bullet hole appears straight through the target—an outline of a human profile.

Daniel Grass, a senior at the University of Georgia, shows off his target image. Ten bullet holes gape in the paper target—all through the head.

Grass is confident in his shooting ability and plans to purchase a gun when he has enough money. He said he would not feel any more or less safe carrying a gun with him on campus—but that is exactly what he would be able to do if the proposed legislation House Bill 512 were to pass through the senate.

House Bill 512, which passed through the Georgia House in a 117-56 vote this month, is currently being reviewed by the Senate. HB 512, also known as the Safe Carry Protection Act, amends current legislation to lift restrictions on where guns can be carried. If passed this bill would allow concealed weapons on college campuses—as well as in places of worship, bars and unsecured government buildings.

Athens House Representatives were split on their vote for HB 512. Democratic Representative Spencer Frye voted against the bill while Republican Representative Regina Quick voted in favor. As reflected by the conflicting views of the two representatives, the Athens community has a variety of opinions on HB 512.

HB 512 would affect public institutions differently than private ones. Places of worship and bars, because they are private property rights, would still be allowed to decide whether or not to allow weapons in their establishment. Public universities, however, are considered government institutions and would be required to permit guns on certain areas of their campus.

The University of Georgia being a public institution would be directly impact by the passing of the Safe Carry Protection Act.

University Police Chief Jimmy Williamson opposes HB 512, particularly legislation that would allow for guns to be carried on college campuses. “We like where the current law is,” said Williamson. “I have concerns [about HB512] from a safety standpoint.”

Williamson said that he believed the law would cause a number of issues and would make the job of police officers more difficult. He noted his concern about the influence guns would have on instances of intimidation or bullying on campus. Williamson said the presence of more guns in innocent people’s hands would complicate the job of police officers when in came to responding to active shooters. “It would be hard for the police responding to know who the good guy and who the bad guy is,” said Williamson.

On the other side of the issue Bobby Tribble an employee at Franklin Gun Shop in Athens, said

“If you are a law abiding person you can carry a gun anywhere you want to and as long as you don’t show off with it and do something illegal or unless you have to use the gun nobody is going to know you have it anyway.”

Tribble said he did not believe that passing or removing restrictions on where gun owners could carry weapons would change the number of people carrying concealed weapons in these areas. “Only law abiding people obey laws so passing more laws is not going to have any effect.”

The University Union hosted a debate on gun control open to students, faculty and athens locals. Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owner Association and  Kathryn Grant of the non-profit organization Gun Free Kids, both presented their views on the issue guns on campus.

Grant, who is part of the Keep Guns Off Campus Resolutions, said in opposition to HB 512, “The assertion that arming students and teachers in keeping the campus community safe lies at the heart of this debate, but is a rationale seen by many as fundamentally flawed.” Grant further encouraged those making decisions on this bill to listen to experts on the issue that have said putting guns on campus will not make it a safer environment.

Feldman a prominent lobbyist for gun rights refuted Grant. Feldman said that in order to discuss the issue of gun control people must get away form the emotions in the issue.

“[If] I am carrying that gun legally, am I somehow, when I cross over onto school property, going to become a vicious killer? I think not,” said Feldman. The concern is not where guns can be carried. The important issue is who is carrying a gun.

Feldman said, removing gun restrictions would not change the number of dangerous people who could carry a gun on campus—rather it would increase the number of law-abiding citizens who would have a gun and ability to defend themselves.

But do students or faculty feel they would be safer if guns were allowed on campus? University Georgia System Chancellor Hank Huckaby does not think so.

“In my position I believe strongly that allowing our students to carry weapons on our campuses will not increase their personal safety but instead reduce it,” said Huckaby, in a statement before the Georgia legislative committee. Huckaby is supported by the 31 other University System of Georgia’s presidents in his opposition of HB 512.

Lucas Smith a freshman at the University of Georgia said he is against HB 512. “There are merits to both arguments, but I would personally want to see no guns on campus,” said Smith. While Smith said he supports the second amendment, he feels that he pays money to attend the University and should have a say in how safe he feels on campus.

Back at the shooting range, Grass fired over 17 rounds through his target practicing his precision and aim. “I agree with allowing guns in more places,” said Grass. “I think the biggest misconception about gun control is that, the more regulation you put on gun is going to keep them out of the wrong hands.”

Grass believes that current legislation restricting gun carrying on campus is not going to stop someone who wants to bring a gun on campus from doing so. By allowing guns on campus Grass said he did not feel the number of students carrying guns would drastically increase.

“There might be a small percent of student who carry [guns] and they are going to be the responsible ones who wouldn’t want to shot me anyways. The only thing that [allowing guns on campus] could do it maybe prevent a mass shooting or something,” said Grass.

While the Safe Carry Protection Act remains under review in the Georgia Senate, the Athens and University community can contact Athens’ State Senator Bill Cowsert to voice their opinion on House Bill 512.   

Addressing Medicaid Reforms—the Athens Health Assurance Program

Athens Clarke County has a large number of residents that would qualify for the benefits added under the Affordable Care Act, but Georgia’s decision to limit the expansion of these benefits may require Athens to come up with local solutions to the widespread healthcare needs.

As far as how a local Athens Health Assurance plan will address those who will not gain Medicaid under Gov. Deal’s denial of expansion, Alexandria Chambers of the Athens Health Network calls this “the million dollar question.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 22.8 percent of Athens-Clarke county residents are uninsured this is higher than Georgia’s average and the national average.

The Affordable Care Act passed in the summer of 2012, sought to address the access disparity of healthcare to the poor. “The law put in motion the creation of a nationwide insurance system that would sharply reduce the number of Americans without coverage,” reported the New York Times.

Before the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid requirements designated certain categories of need that had to be met in order to receive Medicaid. Though requirements varied by state, common categories included people living with certain physical disabilities or pregnant women and children living below a designated poverty level.  Many low-income adults without children and some low-income parents whose children received benefits did not qualify for Medicaid coverage under previous Medicaid legislation.

New legislation from the Affordable Care Act provides Medicaid to all adults who earn up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, but allows for states to decide whether or not to expand Medicaid coverage to include this entire new population of Medicaid recipients.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal chose last summer not to expand Medicaid in Georgia. “I think that [Medicad expansion] is something our state cannot afford,” said Deal in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Deal’s decision reflected the beliefs of many other Republican governors at the time who did not believe the federal government would be able to fully provide the funds required for Medicaid expansion in each state.

“If Georgia expanded its Medicaid program according the the ACA, an additional 646,557 Georgians would be eligible for Medicaid by 2019,” said Monica Guaghan an assistance professor in the Health Policy and Management Department at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

“I think that Georgia will continue to have a population that is unhealthier than other parts of the country,” said Guaghan. “The primary reason for this is a lack of political will within the state of Georgia to address social problems related to poverty.”

Some communities are looking to develop local healthcare programs to address the large number of people who will remain uninsured because of Deal’s decision to not expand Medicaid.

In Athens-Clarke County the Athens Health Network was created to provide services for the health needs of the uninsured and under-insured by bringing together multiple healthcare stakeholders in the Athens community.

Under their 2008 proposed recommendations, the Athens Health Network stated a need to “Create the OneAthens Healthcare Plan to serve the primary health care needs of the estimated 14,250 uninsured in Athens.”

Today the Athens Health Assurance program is being developed by executive director of the Athens Health Network Alexandria Chambers.

Chambers calls the Athens Health Networks Health Assurance program a “navigation system,” for those without insurance seeking healthcare services.

This program is not an insurance plan, said Chambers, and patients will still have to pay for the cost of services. What this program is providing is a facilitator between healthcare providers and the uninsured. “We are essentially acting as that broker for services, negotiating a discounted rate for people to pay.”

The Assurance program would provide patients with access to information and guidance on where to get primary care, how much it is going to cost, and how to go about making payments and filling out paperwork.

The Athens Health Assurance program is currently in the early stages of development and funding. The program has filed for nonprofit status and requested grants from partners, including Kaiser Permanente.

Once the program receives the funding it needs, there are three major pieces that must be developed in order to see the Health Assurance program come to term, said Chambers. Developing a network “of [healthcare] providers that would be willing to see our members at a discounted rate,” developing the resources needed to provide member services and implementing operations.

Currently in Athens there are three clinics that provide primary care to the uninsured. One of these clinics is the Mercy Health Center. Executive director at Mercy Health Center, Tracy Thompson sits on the board of the Athens Health Network and fully supports the creation of a health assurance program in Athens.

Thompson explained that the program would best serve the fairly healthy in the working poor population of Athens—to help them get the primary care that they otherwise could not afford. In order to implement a health assurance program in Athens the health network needs, “a few key physicians to buy into the program and good hospitals to buy-in,” said Thompson.

The program will work with people and help them plan for their health needs. People will have a better understanding of cost up front and they will be able to take the necessary steps to financially prepare to address these needs before they develop into debilitating problems that could prevent them from working and being able to afford the healthcare they need, said Thompson.

“Because Governor Deal at this time is choosing not to expand Medicaid coverage here in Georgia we will still have that number of people who would have been eligible [Under the Affordable Care Act] for Medicaid, but will not become eligible because there is not an expansion,” said Chambers. That is the target population the Athens Health Assurance program hopes to help.

If funded and put into action, the Athens Health Assurance plan would also provide a healthcare option for those receiving minimum government subsidies, those choosing to pay the 1 pecent tax and not purchase insurance, and undocumented immigrants who do not receive any benefits.

Just as the development of a local health assurance program is still in development the implementation of the Affordable Care Act is still under debate.

In recent weeks Republican Governors who previously choose to opt out of Medicaid expansions for their state changed their minds.

Most recently New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie, previously an adversary to the Affordable Care Act, chose to accept the expansion of Medicaid in his state.

This raises the question as to the permanence of Deal’s decision on Medicaid expansion in Georgia and what Medicaid reforms will mean for local healthcare programs—particularly in communities like Athens where health accesses and disparity are prominent issues.

This Year’s Flu Season Came Early and Hit Hard

It starts with chills pulsating throughout the body, accompanied by a hot forehead, sore throat and running nose. The body feels aches comparable to those incurred from being tackled by the University of Georgia’s entire defensive line. The only hope left is to sink into bed with no intention of returning to reality, but sleep is forbidden by a steady stream of coughing fits and one is left utterly miserable.

It is flu season and the symptoms above are those most commonly related to influenza virus.

This year’s flu season came early and swept the nation, claiming lives and sending a large number of people to the hospital. In Georgia similar levels of elevated flu activity occurred throughout the state, particularly local influenza activity.

According to a statement from the Georgia Department of Health, “Influenza (flu) is hitting Georgia harder this season than at any time in the past 10 years.”

Patrick O’Neal, M.D., the director of the Division of Health Protection for the Georgia Department of Public Health said, in a press release in January, that flu activity in Georgia reached “epidemic levels” this flu season.

So far this flu season, Georgia reported four flu-related deaths. Including one flu-related death in the Athens area, according to the Athens Banner Herald.

The Center of Disease Control, CDC, reported a total of 59 flu-related pediatric deaths this flu season, as of February 2nd, nearly double the total flu-related pediatric deaths that occurred during the 2011-2012 flu season. The total number flu-related deaths among adults were not reported.

February brought lower levels of flu than early flu season, but the CDC reports that influenza activity remains elevated across the country.

Georgia’s peak weeks of flu activity matched the national trend, with the highest levels of flu reported the last two weeks of December through the first two weeks of January.

“It’s likely that the worst of the current flu season is over,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told the Associated Press. The Georgia Department of Public Health still warns that, “given the early and intense start of this flu season, it could last longer this year,” according to a statement on their website.

Flu season last from late November through March so there remains time for a second surge of flu this season.

Lynn Beckmann, Northeast Georgia’s Public Health Department’s infectious disease coordinator said in an email, “I can tell you, anecdotally, that I was getting reports rather early this year, even as early as mid Sept., that [flu] cases were being seen in the community.”

The Athens Banner Herald reported early in January that local hospitals, St. Mary’s Healthcare and Athens Regional Medical center, “have collectively tested more than 4,000 people for flu and nearly 20 percent of those tests came back as positive.”

The best defense against the flu is to get a yearly vaccine, according to the CDC.

Emily Cox a third year student at the University of Georgia who lives in Athens described her experience receiving the flu shoot,“I got my shot at Kroger, I just went in to the pharmacy area and asked if I could get a flu shot and they were like sure.” Cox said she was encouraged by her mom to get a flu shot but she thinks it is very important to get a flu shot every year. Cox got her flu shot in November of 2012 and said she has not gotten the flu this flu season.

“The flu vaccine is safe and effective, although probably not as effective as we once thought in the elderly due to a decreased immune response,” said Mark Ebell, an associate professor of Epidemiology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

Athens physicians’ offices, the Public Health Department and local drug stores administer vaccines locally.

Jim Stowe, a local pharmacist, works at Horton’s Drugstore in the HealthMart Pharmacy located in downtown Athens. When asked about flu vaccinations administered by Horton’s Drugstore this year, Stowe said he saw trends similar to statewide reports.

“Once we had that first little surge, particularly out west of [flu]cases showing up, it became where everyone was like I have been putting it [getting a flu shot] off long enough,” said Stowe about the Athens’ residents’ response to national reports of elevated levels of flu this season.

Horton’s Pharmacy worked with local banks and parishes, to put on health days that provided vaccines to a large number of people at one time.

“It’s been kind of one of those things where you just try to find out where the need is and just get folks together so you can try to do it all at one time,” said Stowe about vaccinations in the Athens community. “You definitely also have people walk in the door who say they want to get their shot.”

In regards to getting vaccinated Stowe advised, “It’s a personal decision for everybody.” A person’s decision to get vaccinated depends on, “contact and your personal history, some people are more susceptible due to preexisting conditions, to age limitations, to exposure to these particular strains in previous years that don’t have any immunity to that one.”

Horton’s Drugstore is still administering this year’s flu vaccine and has a prescribing physician on staff that administers the flu shots.

Each flu season is different and the severity of the virus is unpredictable. The CDC estimates that anywhere from 5% to 20% of U.S. residents contract the flu each year.

The flu vaccine is the most effective method in preventing the flu, and those who have not received this year’s flu vaccine should take extra precautions to protect themselves and prevent the spread of flu.

Suggested methods of prevention include, hand-washing, avoiding touching the face and mouth, covering one’s mouth to sneeze or cough and avoiding those infected with the flu.