The Newton County School System would love to buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers, but it remains to be seen whether a grouping of local farmers would be able to provide enough food for 16,000-plus students at a reasonable cost.
The farm-to-school program was one of several topics discussed by local leaders and conservationists at a Wednesday luncheon hosted by the Upper Ocmulgee River Resource Conservation and Development Program.RC&D’s are non-profit agencies that run conservation programs to assist counties and seek to help communities retain environmental quality while experiencing cultural and economic development. The Upper Ocmulgee RC&D assists Henry, Gwinnett, Jasper, Newton and Rockdale counties. The group’s coordinator, Jerome Brown, is paid by the USDA to oversee the RC&D, but all of the programs are funded by various grants, which Brown and others write.
Brown said RC&Ds across the state are exploring farm-to-school programs to get fresh Georgia-grown fruits and vegetables into Georgia’s schools. He said Rockdale County already has a program running, and its school system features a different fruit or vegetable every day.
A local nutritionist with the NCSS said she has to feed more than 16,000 students every day and expressed concern about whether local farmers could provide enough produce.
Because most local farms are smaller, Brown said farm-to-school programs require a lot of coordination and planning. His group recently applied for a grant that would allow for the formation of a statewide co-op of farmers. This would be particularly useful in Georgia, because production of certain foods, like peaches and peanuts are largely regionalized.
In addition, he said the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture is working to form a statewide computer database to improve coordination.
Chamber President Hunter Hall said if the NCSS or this statewide co-op could guarantee a market, it would allow him to go to farmers and say "if you join the co-op, your crops will be sold before they’re even grown." This is how most Community Supported Agriculture farms operate; individuals sign contracts to pre-buy fruits and vegetables from a local farmer every month.
Covington Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams said she was very interested in this program, because she’s seen some limited school menus that contain too many starches.
Chicken on a Stick
In addition to the farm-to-school program, the RC&D is also trying to spur the formation of farmers markets and educate children about where food comes from and how to cook it.
Brown said it’s amazing how little some children know about food. He told a story about a child, who one day told his father that he had eaten "chicken on a stick." The father was confused and called the school. It turns out the stick was actually a chicken bone.
"The child never knew (before) that chickens had bones," Brown said.
By touring students around farms, the RC&D hopes to expand their food knowledge. In addition, the RC&D received a $100,000 grant that he hopes will allow it to create 16 farmers markets. The farmers markets will be equipped with EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer, machines that will allow people who qualify for food stamps to use their EBT cards to purchase fresh produce.
However, even if children and adults know where fruits and vegetables come from they still may not know how to cook them. Brown said the RC&D will conduct 10 cooking demonstrations in its area to educate people about how to cook and eat fresh produce.
Brown said these two programs will aim to reduce obesity, which is often caused by families not having access to grocery stores and relying on high-fat products from local convenience stores. For more information go to ebtfarmersmarket.com.
Planting Trees is Cool
Beryl Budd, chief ranger for the Georgia Forestry Commission, said his organization continues to experience budget cuts from the state, but for the time being is still carrying out most of its programs.
He said the commission has a training program for urban communities because most trees in cities are actually planted improperly.
In addition, the GFC is partnering with Snapping Shoals EMC to plant trees for energy conservation. Budd said that most people plant trees for beautification, but the cooling affect of trees is an important trait.
The GFC also started a storm damage assessment team, which goes into urban areas after storms and surveys the damage, studying which trees should be cut down and removed and which trees can be saved. More info can be found at gfc.state.ga.us.
Public Transit, Please
John Devine, a senior planner at the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, said his group also places a focus on conservation efforts.
In addition to supporting two current rails-to-trails projects in Athens-Clarke and Greene counties, Devine said the NGRC is looking to a do a public transit feasibility study, to examine future regional options.
The organization is also trying to promote Safe Routes to School to increase pedestrian activity and continues to work on its 25-year regional plan to identify and improve the area’s most valuable natural and historical resources. For more information, go to negrc.org.