Alice Waters Visit Highlights Farm-to-School Momentum in Georgia
Georgia’s reputation as a farm-to-school leader was on full display during Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project lunch at the Georgia Organics conference.
While Alice Waters may be most well-known as chef and owner of Chez Panisse, she was a Montessori teacher before she started the restaurant. This background informs her work today with the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit she founded over 25 years ago. The ESP supports a network of over 7,000 schools that have a garden, kitchen classroom, farm to school lunch program, or curriculum that involves ecology, sustainability, and building community.
The Edible Schoolyard started in a Berkeley middle school before expanding outreach across the country. “It began not as a cooking or gardening class,” said Waters. “It happens to use a garden and a kitchen to teach academic subjects”. The garden and the kitchen, Waters said, are for everything from science and medicine to art, language, or history.
Waters champions the Montessori idea that “our senses are the pathways into our minds” by incorporating learning-by-doing pedagogy into the Edible Schoolyard Project.
“I really believe that our children in this country are sensorily deprived. I mean many because of hunger and poverty, but all of them because of this fast food indoctrination,” said Waters. Edible education, according to Waters, has traction because it encourages children to engage with their senses.
For Waters, this edible education is also fundamentally tied to the idea of school supported agriculture. “You can buy directly from the farmers who are taking care of their land and their farm workers” and bring it into the classroom, added Waters.
To showcase the potential of a school supported agriculture lunch, Waters has toured Edible Schoolyard demonstrations around the country, including a student-style lunch at the February 9th Georgia Organics Conference & Expo. The 650-person lunch, sourced entirely from within 150 miles except for the salt and pepper, powerfully displayed the strong relationship between schools and farms in the state.
Kimberly Della Donna, Farm to School Director for Georgia Organics, said that it was Chefarmer Matthew Raiford, a Georgia Organics board member, and Alice Waters who proposed bringing the Edible Schoolyard Project to Georgia. “They were very excited about the possibility of having this lunch at our conference, because they thought that this might be a receptive audience to the vision that Edible Schoolyard has for school nutrition,” said Della Donna.
1.1 million school lunches are served every day in Georgia. According to the Georgia Farm to School Alliance annual report, in 2018, over 50% of public school districts in Georgia reported buying local or Georgia Grown food items, adding at least $24 million in local purchases to the state economy.
Dr. Linette Dodson, Georgia’s State Director of School Nutrition, credits some of Georgia’s farm to school success to the collaboration between the Georgia Department of Education and local school districts, with the support of State Superintendent Richard Woods. “We’re really fortunate in Georgia; we have a lot of very qualified local directors that are doing some really innovative things,” said Dodson. “They have a strong focus on incorporating local agriculture and locally sourced foods into our program”.
“I think the evolution of school nutrition in Georgia is continuing to set the standard as far as leadership,” said Dodson. “There’s a lot of foundational pieces [of national school nutrition] that actually came out of Georgia”.
School nutrition programs also partner with multiple collaborative state agencies like the Department of Agriculture, UGA extension, DECAL, and the Department of Public Health, as well as non profit associations like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Dairy Alliance, and Georgia Organics.
After founding the state’s first farm to school program in 2007, Georgia Organics has expanded advocacy and training across the state. Currently, Georgia Organics works with school districts, early care centers, state-wide partners, and agencies to grow farm to school at the grassroots and “grasstops” level. Georgia Organics’ programs are designed to remove barriers for farm to school, with information and support on certifications, trainings, and food safety regulations. The annual Golden Radish awards are designed to showcase the schools leading by example and putting their money where their mouth is.
According to Matthew Raiford, farm and school relationships benefit one overlooked group in particular: small farmers. In his work with Georgia Organics, Raiford trains cafeteria workers and nutrition professionals, but he also spends time with farmers looking to extend the seasons to provide more local food, year-round.
“Farm to school gives small farmers an opportunity to see an important revenue stream that has been overlooked for decades,” said Raiford.
In addition, Georgia’s farm to school focus makes a lasting impact on students. “We are the only state in the nation that has a focus on an academic nutrition program,” added Dodson. Classrooms are used to educate students in the cafeteria, with curriculum that links academic subjects to school gardens and healthy, delicious food.
“I always say that it’s, kind of, six weeks to kale,” laughed Waters. “But seriously, I feel like all of these kids who had three years at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, that they will forever be mindful of the environment and will be able to nourish themselves really well”.
Because a school lunch brings children together in a different way, said Waters, kids are quick to understand the value in an edible education. “They get it osmosis, a kind of camaraderie and sharing of a meal. They take it home to their parents too”.
For Raiford, Georgia’s robust farm to school program was one of the reasons he wanted to bring Waters to Georgia. “Our farm to school program that has been spearheaded with Georgia Organics and Georgia Grown is one of the most amazing programs I’ve seen—and it can be very easily modeled in other states,” he said.
This connection between students and farmers is something Waters wants to champion across the country. Waters mentioned the work she’s seen President Jimmy Carter do with Habitat for Humanity, and advocates for activists to come together with the sense of a barn raising—or rather, a “school raising”.
“We need to win over that next generation, and that means doing this farm to school work in the public schools,” said Waters. “I think it’s the perfect relationship to have with schoolchildren and farms”.