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


Local food movements clash with globalization trends

Walking through the produce section of your preferred grocery, you may decide to buy some apples, but where did those apples come from?  Were they grown locally in Georgia’s apple capital Ellijay?  Or, as is more likely the case, were they grown and harvested somewhere else, somewhere 2,600 miles away?

The world’s food systems have become increasingly globalized over the past decades; with more companies producing food on a mass scale, we as a society have seemingly gotten farther away from our food than ever before.  However, local food trends are growing across the nation, allowing local farms and food movements to flourish.

As the old adage goes; an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but in today’s food market, getting that apple requires more process than is seen by the consumer.  As is the case with all produce, apples do not grow year-round, nor do they grow well in every state’s climate.  According to USDA statistics from 2000, slightly less than 50 percent of all apple production in the U.S. occurs over 2600 miles away from Georgia; in Washington State. Apples are only a minor example of the scale of production and shipping required to get consumers the foods they demand.

Availability of many types of food depends on season.  With processed foods, production and manufacturing factors play a larger role in where food comes from. 

Kansas is the nation’s largest producer of wheat, but the process that takes it from wheat to bread is a long one with many different stops on the way.  In the process of bread-making alone, the supply chain, or the chain of production necessary for today’s bread-production system, relies on yeast production, sugar production, wheat production and processing, and countless other variables tied together by shipping lanes; all to get a loaf of sliced bread from the field to the dinner table. 

Just as the trend towards the globalization of food grows, so does the movement towards local, organically produced foods. 

In Athens alone there are a multitude of options when looking for local or organic foods.  When it comes to organic food, every supermarket around town carries a selection of organic produce, with specialty stores like Earth Fare and Trader Joe’s offering an even wider selection.  There are even more options for organic and local food with the influx of local farm cooperatives and farmer’s markets that have come to Athens in recent years.  The Athens Farmers Market will come together on the sidewalk around City Hall twice a week beginning in April, offering locally grown and organic produce at good prices to the residents of the downtown area.  The Daily Groceries Co-op and Athens Locally Grown are two programs that allow interested parties to buy a membership or ownership of the organization in exchange for fresh organic and local produce.  Farm 255 is yet another example of the power of the local food movement as a restaurant that is fueled entirely by Athens-area farms.

Recent legislation introduced by Representative Keisha Waites (D) of Georgia’s 60thdistrict will provide an avenue and incentives for Georgia schools and school districts to purchase foods and other products from Georgia farms.  This bill, introduced into the Georgia House of Representatives, would signify a large step forward for the local food movement, as well as a huge helping hand to local farms around the State.  While still in its infancy now, this bill proposes the creation of a farm-to-school program that would facilitate and promote the sale of Georgia grown farm products to the school districts around Georgia, providing a ray of hope for local farms and local food movements in the state.

Even with local and organic food options being more available than ever, people find it difficult to go out of their way to buy food, and because this idea of global food has become the norm, people seldom make efforts to purchase locally. 

Supermarkets have been extremely popular for decades, offering one-stop shopping and competitive prices.  Wal-Mart provides 18 percent of the country’s groceries annually, but sometimes struggles to provide local and organic food to its shoppers.  In 2006 however, the company released that it had doubled sales in organic foods, and in 2008 outlined a plan to sell more local foods, planning to reach 9 percent local produce by 2015.  According to Jim Prevor, a produce industry analyst and editor of the blog Popular Pundit, one of the biggest problems that companies like Wal-Mart have in regard to the sale of organic and local foods is due to scale. 

“They just couldn’t find operations with sufficient quantity to supply them,” said Prevor in an interview with Tom Philpott for Mother Jones.  Companies as large as Wal-Mart need to be able to purchase extremely large quantities of produce from farms, and these smaller organic farms are not able to keep up with supply. 

While any effects of the globalization of our food systems may not seem immediately apparent, they have affected our lives in ways that we may not be able to see on a daily basis. 

Colleen O’Brian Cherry is an assistant research scientist at the Center for Global Health in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia.  She has recently completed research on the culinary and cultural practices of groups in Southern Arizona, centered on how changing environments impact the health and well being of the population. 

Her research has shown, among other things, that a breakdown in traditional food gathering and preparation practices has had a negative impact on culture and cultural tradition as well as a negative effect on health and wellness for the populations studied.  The findings of this research carry implications not only for the area that was being studied, but as she explained it, the health and nutrition practices of our country as a whole.  

“The globalization of food can be a huge factor in nutrition,” said Cherry. “Even in rural areas, the [traditional] diet has been replaced by the typical American diet. We have grown distant from our food sources; everything is so packaged and processed, and half of the stuff on your dinner plate is from thousands and thousands of miles away.”

With processed and junk foods more available than ever, they become harder for the average consumer to stay away from. 

For all of progress that the local food movements have made around the country, the movement toward more globalized food systems still progresses, begging the question; which trend is more powerful? 

J. Scott Angle, the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, seemed to believe that industrial agriculture is only growing. 

“We’ve had a doubling in the number of students enrolled in our programs in the last 7 years,” said Angle.  He mentioned that while programs like Agribusiness, the most popular program in CAES, are growing exponentially, more non-traditional and less-popular programs like food science are growing as well.  Indeed, the farming industry is doing well, offering more jobs than almost any other field, as well as the recorded 2nd highest salary for graduates right out of college. 

While this does not necessarily mean that the local food movement is in danger, it does not bode well for the future of smaller, less commercial farming initiatives. If there is hope for the independent farmer, it seems that it may come from education.


Athens Farmer’s Market: Two Years Later

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