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A Q&A with farm-to-school pioneers



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Students at Amana Academy, a charter school in Alpharetta, plant a community garden. James Carr. (click for larger version)
July 14, 2014
During my research, I spent time with several farmers, chefs and entrepreneurs to find out how the movement is progressing on the ground. Here’s my conversation with Amana Academy’s Ehab Jaleel, executive director, and Niki Fox of Amana’s Gardening Club. We discussed the local movement and its importance to a healthier lifestyle.

How important is it for children to learn about where their food comes from and the farm-to-table movement?

NIKI FOX: I think it’s critical. Every year, our students do an expedition where they integrate all the different subject matter – English, math, reading, language arts, social studies – into this culminating project and the second semester, they do a farm-to-table expedition. They spend time visiting local farms, talking about where their food comes from and studying the process of how food gets to table. So it’s really critical. Because if all you see is lettuce in the store and you don’t see where it comes from, then you don’t get anything out of it.

What was the reaction by the students and parents to seeing the garden in front of the building?

EHAB JALEEL: At first, it’s like well, what’s that going to look like? Because there’s a whole aesthetic thing that comes into play. So I was very intrigued to see how parents would react to this. And I was so pleasantly surprised because people loved it. I think what got them was seeing the growth.

FOX: Everyone was like, when can we make a salad? When do we get to pick it?

JALEEL: One of our biggest fears was — are kids going to destroy the beds as they’re walking by and so forth? And they were very respectful. I think it was that they could see other kids planted the food and it was in an organized way. So they were very respectful. I was expecting kids to pull stuff out, dig around or throw trash in there, but there was none of it.

What are the biggest challenges Amana Academy faces in the farm-to-table movement?

FOX: I would love to see us serving locally grown produce and meats to our students in the cafeteria, and we are bound by the same rules as public schools as far as USDA standards and the school nutrition program, and so finding approved vendors who can provide local produce can sometimes be challenging within the budget that we’re working with. So I think to really deliver on what we’re teaching them here, it’s really important to work toward that. I think it’s great what Fulton County is doing in the public schools with their program that happens periodically, and I would love to see that grow. I would love to see local farmers being supported by the school nutrition program, so it benefits the farmers as well to develop that relationship where farmers are providing a service to the kids in the community. So our biggest challenge is finding a way to do that as a charter school, while fitting into the laws we have to follow.

JALEEL: This is our second year participating in the free and reduced lunch program, and there are ways for us to think a little bit outside the box.

What are items you would love to grow if climate, soil and weather weren’t factors?

FOX: I wish I had the list the kids put together right before we started planting this year! Let’s see; apples, because kids love apples. Bananas, pomegranates, because they’re super fun and I would like to be able to grow tomatoes year-round. And enough greens to make salads.

JALEEL: Tomatoes. Mangos – that’s my favorite fruit. Sweet potatoes – once I was exposed to sweet potato fries, I never went back. Avocados. And the last one is a fruit you’re probably not familiar with, Jenerik. It grows in Lebanon and Syria. It’s a plum that stays green and it’s hard. So what you eat is hard, it’s sour and you put salt on it. That’s my second favorite fruit.

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