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
by Chari Sutherland
On Tuesday, Roots Farm and Cedar Grove Farm workers were preparing for participation in the Athens Farmer’s Market (AFM) opening on May11. At Roots, Sara Callaway knelt in moist, black soil, and added lettuce seedlings for red cross lettuce. At Cedar Grove, a worker used a pitchfork to toss natural compost into the garden where planting will begin. With the opening of the AFM only seven weeks away, growers are busy tending their gardens.
“It’s an interesting challenge to have food coming out early spring,” Callaway said, who is manager of the Roots Farm. “We put a good amount of effort in planting things that grow fast with a 30- to 60-day turnaround.” She said lettuces, radishes and arugula grow fast. Onions, planted in the fall, will be ready by the market opening day. After mid-April frost risk goes down and growers can pretty much plant anything, said Jay Payne, president of the AFM and owner of Cedar Grove Farm in Crawford, Georgia.
Farmer markets have been becoming more and more popular. The USDA reported in August, 2009 that there were approximately 4,900 farmers markets operating nationwide, this includes 215 new markets added since 2008.
The interest in farmer’s markets is evidenced by the attendance level increases over the last two years that the AFM has been open.
Payne said, “We had 1200 visitors on average per market last year for over 34,000 total.” He hopes to see an increase in those numbers this year. “I would like to think that the 20 farmers will feed at least 2000-3000 customers a week this season.”
Board member, Christy Jenkins, was instrumental in the upstart of the market. She said when the market began in 2008 the goals were “ to establish a stable market with regular clientele, to establish consistency in presentation of products, and to make it so people are aware of the market in the area.”
Craig Page of Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experience (PLACE) was also involved in planning the AFM. “There definitely had a learning curve the first year,” he said.
Payne said, “On our first day, we had 3000 people show up on Saturday. It was a disaster. We had this knot of people in one spot.” Produce sold out in an hour, he said. That indicated the AFM would be a great success.
Here are some statistics:
- First year’s weekly patronage averaged 950 people per week
- Second year’s weekly patronage averaged 1200 a week
- At peak season, 1500 customers were the average.
- In the first year 11 farmers participated. By the end of that year, there were 16.
- There were 18 farmers the second year.
- This year, 30 farmers have applied. Only 25 will be chosen for full-time slots and up to six more for part-time.
“This is not a market where farmers can drop in anytime,” Payne said. “Many farmers’ markets started and failed because they didn’t have a consistent level of produce.” Growers must commit to either a “Full Membership” which entitles the grower to participate on all Saturdays. This level of membership costs $400. A “Full Membership Plus”, which costs $700, enables the grower to participate on all Saturdays and Tuesdays in the season. Growers must be
Certified Naturally Grown, have farms must be located within the 26-county area around Athens and must submit to the philosophy, ‘If you don’t grow it, you can’t sell it.’
Callaway said the rates and requirements are reasonable. “If your production size is anything, you’re going to make at least $300 every week,” she said. “That ends up being about $9000 for the season if its 29 weeks.”
Cutting out the middle man such as transport costs, has had two affects, Payne said. Farmers are growing more product and the money they make is staying in the community.
Growers in the AFM are usually small farmers who are cultivating gardens of around two or three acres. There are some with only a half acre and one with about 13 acres. Because of their small size, most growers in the market tend not to be Certified Organic (a USDA managed program). Certified Naturally Grown is a type of organic or sustainable farming that “follows organic thinking”, Payne said, but costs less. All growers in the AFM use natural materials or techniques, avoiding any synthetic products.
The market has several changes this year. Payne said he hopes the Tuesday Downtown Market from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Little Kings Bar parking lot will bring in consumers who can’t normally come Saturday mornings, such as students and downtown workers.
In past years, AFM has only been accepting cash or checks. This year, they have obtained an Electronic Benefits Transfer device (EBT) that will enable them to sell to food stamp recipients. These customers will be able to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards to purchase food.
Page said parking had been a problem. After 2009, most of the kinks were worked out, he said. “An upcoming problem we may face is space,” Craig said. Payne said he hopes the AFM will acquire its own space in the next few years instead of renting.
As a grower, Callaway’s has found that she has to narrow down the diversity of produce she grows because buyers want the more common items. “People want butter head lettuce, for example. Not speckled romaine, red romaine, or oak leaf. They won’t buy them.” In tomatoes, however, customers seem to like not just the red slicers but also pink and yellow varieties.
Payne encourages the consumers to think differently about food varieties. “The farmer’s market has varieties of things you can’t get in a grocery store because they don’t hold up as long.” For instance, Cedar Grove alone will sell at least four different varieties of kale and three varieties of greens. At the market there will be growers hawking blueberries, blackberries, kale, brocalli, lettuces, carrots, squashes, and various varieties of potatoes. Cedar Grove’s most popular item is the purple hull, Texas pink-eye peas.
Looking ahead, Page is hopeful that state laws will be relaxed to allow local meat and dairy producers to participate in the market.
Payne said he’d like to see the market have twice as many farmers in 10 years, feeding a community with more fresh, local, wholesome food, rather than produce that might travel thousands of miles before the consumer ever sees it. “My vision was to create something lasting so people would say ‘They have a really great market in Athens’.”
At the outset of this venture two years ago, Page said he’d hoped that the market would create a social space for the community to come together. It has become that. It has also had the effect of helping growers create personal relationships with customers. “Because the farmers are there, consumers have confidence in our products,” Payne said.
The Athens Farmer’s Market will run from May 11 to November 20 in Bishop Park at 705 Sunset Drive. Saturday hours will be 8 to 12. Tuesday’s Downtown Market hours will be 4 to 7. See the Farmer’s Market website for more information, http://athensfarmersmarket.net