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.
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: http://prezi.com/agja1jptmrl4/present/?auth_key=fom7icr&follow=trkjlobb9hm9