Here’s some food for thought: For thousands of metro Atlanta schoolchildren, the proverbial apple-a-day may come from just around the corner, thanks to a national farm-to-school initiative.

In fact, healthy produce on the school lunch menu could be sprouting from as close as a school garden that students help maintain and harvest, within a few hours’ drive on a Georgia farm or a stone’s throw regionally, in Florida or North Carolina.

Aila Courtenay, a second grader at Woodland Elementary School, inspects her Swiss chard that is ready to plant. The school offers a STEM environmental science program, which includes 23 raised garden beds, fruit trees and an acquatic garden containing tilapia. (Photo Phil Mosier)

Since 2011, the school nutrition programs in the DeKalb and Fulton systems have participated in the National Farm to School Initiative, where students get to experience fruits and vegetables that are grown locally or regionally.

Whether featuring regionally grown produce each month, setting up raised garden beds or potted plants on school campuses, or learning about agriculture and the food journey in the classroom, metro Atlanta schoolchildren are getting a better understanding of nearby food sources and healthy eating choices.

“‘Farm to School’ is a national initiative that connects school students to local farmers,” said Joyce R. Wimberly, executive director of School Nutrition Services, DeKalb County School System, in an email. “This program supports the department’s mission to promote lifetime wellness to DeKalb County students and staff by serving meals that are high quality, nutritious, enjoyable and economical.”

National interest in farm-to-school efforts has been increasing, according to the USDA’s Farm to School Program page.

In 2013-2014, school districts responding to the department’s Farm to School Census purchased almost $800 million in local food from farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food processors and manufacturers, a 105 percent increase over the amount of local food bought in the 2011-2012 school year, when the first such census was conducted, the government organization said.

Nationally, 42 percent of school districts responding to the 2015 census have farm-to-school programs in place (as of the 2014-2015 school year) with another 16 percent having plans to start in the future, according to the website.

In Dunwoody, Austin, Chesnut, Dunwoody, Kingsley and Vanderlyn elementary schools, Peachtree Middle School and Dunwoody High School take part in the Farm to Table program. In Brookhaven, Cross Keys High School and Ashford Park, Montclair, Montgomery, Kittredge and Woodward elementary schools are on board. And in Sandy Springs, all 11 schools in the city are involved in the program, according to the Fulton County school district.

“The program has been very well received,” Wimberly said. “Success is measured by the number of students and staff that try the highlighted Farm to School item each month. Students look forward to the monthly items and the opportunity to taste-test different foods.” Students aren’t just learning about where their food comes from.

Cheri Mills, center, teaches students at Woodland Elementary School in Sandy Springs about acquatic gardens on Sept. 5. (Photo Phil Mosier)

Ruth Taylor, coordinator, School Nutrition Program at Fulton County Schools, said some schools take field trips to local farms so kids can actually see for themselves, or incorporate agricultural lessons into the curriculum. At schools with gardens, students are actually involved in maintaining and harvesting produce, further making a connection between the source of their food and the meals on their plates.

DeKalb County purchases produce from a local produce vendor. Wimberly said seven different farms were used in school year 2015-2016 to supply the Farm to School produce — apples from Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge; strawberries from Mathews Farm in Baxley; peaches from Taylor Orchards in Reynolds; squash, cucumbers, peppers and cabbage from Moore & Porter in Thomasville, and from Baker Farms and JR Baker Farms, both in Norman Park; and broccoli and kale from Spring Hill Farms in Tifton.

Featured produce from Georgia farms in Fulton County schools during 2015-2016 included hydro bibb lettuce from StoneCreek Hydroponics in Hartwell; kale from Herndon Country Farms, Vidalia; cabbage from Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable, Norman Park; Georgia blueberry juice from Southern Press & Packing in Blackshear; and Georgia cucumbers from Southern Valley in Norman Park. Fulton County schools also get produce from farms in North Carolina and Florida.

In the DeKalb system, some Brookhaven/Dunwoody area schools have gardens, including: Chesnut Elementary; Montgomery Elementary; Dunwoody Elementary; Austin Elementary; Peachtree Middle; and Ashford Park Elementary.
Forty Fulton County schools have their own gardens, including Heards Ferry Elementary School and Woodland Charter Elementary School. Taylor said the initiative also includes animal and dairy.

On the nutrition program side of the lunch table in Fulton, Taylor said there’s encouragement to work with cafe managers to partner with the school gardens. “In that way we can feature those things and incorporate those in school menus,” she said.

“Students can see it from start to finish,” Taylor said. “They’ve held the plant, they grow it, they nurture it, harvest it. They see the cafe at workers prepare it,” Taylor said. “What we know is, when you have that experience as a student, you’re so much more likely to want to try that fresh fruit or vegetable. You see that complete cycle for those students. Anytime we can get that experiential learning, we see that impact on the students.”

–Leslie Johnson