Caston Noorullah, AshleyRouse,Tate Rosbotto, Bang Tran and Reid Rosbotto in the garden at MJHS.

By Sue G. Collins

Budding gardeners in 50 Atlanta Public Schools are growing food to help feed the district’s 45,000 students thanks to grants, community volunteers and the support of the APS nutrition department.

Last month, students in the Maynard H. Jackson High School garden club planted carrots, spinach and pollinator flowers while harvesting radishes from the sunny 3,000 square foot plot behind the football stadium on Glenwood Avenue.

“I can’t wait to see my friends in the lunch room eating our radishes,” said MJHS senior, Caston Noorullah, who founded the garden club last year to fulfill a graduation requirement in her International Baccalaureate Diploma program. “It’s so much work, and to see the food actually on the table is going to be amazing.”

She and her peers helped plan the new plot (their second), till the land, spread the compost donated by local homeowners, plant seeds and tend the crops. The project was led by managers from the Atlanta-based Captain Planet Foundation’s Garden-to-Cafeteria program, members of the non-profit, FoodCorps, and a coordinator from APS’s school food service vendor Sodexo Jackmont.

“This is a true collaboration and we are proud to be a convener,” said Kyla VanDeusen, Captain Planet Foundation’s learning gardens program manager. “With fresh initiatives from the APS superintendent, momentum from chefs at Sodexo and an understanding with the APS director of nutrition Dr. Marilyn Hughes and her team, the kids are motivated to try eating what comes out of the gardens at their schools.”

The CPF Project Learning Garden program launched the Garden-to-Cafeteria pilots at Beecher Hills Elementary School, Martin Luther King, Jr Middle School and MJHS with funding partners, Sodexo and Kaiser Permanente. There are already more than 50 school gardens planted in the district with the help of CPF, but these three schools’ plots are being beefed up, coordinating crops for their lunch room menus and showing students exactly where their food is coming from – land right outside their classroom windows

Ashley Rouse, Farm to School Director for Sodexo Jackmont, is the garden guardian at MJHS and is equally as vigilant about food safety and as she is passionate about the soil and engaging students in the process. She was on site a few weeks ago, dressed in a bright skirt printed with carrots, peas and cabbage. One minute, she was explaining why it was important to plant sunflowers near the fence (for support), shorter pollinators like zinnias in the front (they need more sun) and in the next breath, she was encouraging club members, brothers Tate and Reid Rosbotto not to give up in their task of repairing the tiller.

Bang Tran, left, and members of the MJHS Garden Club.

“Also, one of the more rewarding results of the project is teaching the kids about the importance of community partnerships to make all this happen,” Rouse said.

Love is Love Farm in Decatur is fermenting recently harvested cauliflower for tacos for one school event. The Preserving Place in West Midtown will help can tomatoes from the school garden for cafeteria lunches in the fall. Chef Linton Hopkins will be bringing cooking demonstrations to schools, and he named CPF as his charity of choice this year.

Bang Tran has been working with young APS gardeners for FoodCorp, a nationwide team of AmeriCorps leaders who connect kids to real food and help them grow up healthy. He and garden clubbers from Maynard Jackson recently cooked up eggs and bright green spinach from their garden for Burgess-Peterson Elementary School students on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. “These students have mad so much progress and the excitement is growing,” Tran said of the Garden-To-Cafeteria program. “With Captain Planet’s classroom curriculum kits, tastings and infrastructure now in place with a few of the schools, the movement is viable.”

Rouse says Sodexo wants more meal participation in schools and this program is one way to make that happen. “We took spinach from the garden to D.H. Stanton Elementary School for a taste test. Of the 262 kids who ate the raw spinach, only seven said they didn’t like it, and most had never even tried fresh spinach!”

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.

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