It's career day at Midland Park Elementary School in North Charleston, and dozens of small children sit cross-legged in front of me on a brightly colored rug. I throw out my default opening question: "What did everyone have for breakfast today?" Several kids yell in unison: "pancakes on a stick!" After laughing at my shocked expression, the teacher explains that most of the students eat the school breakfast, which this morning happened to be a sausage link on a stick, wrapped in a pancake with syrup injected into it. Is this something children should be eating as their foundational meal of the day?
Despite the efforts of California's farm-to-table chef Alice Waters and the recent awareness campaign by British celebuchef Jamie Oliver, changes to our school nutrition plan have been painfully slow in coming, and pink slime chicken nuggets are still the order of the day. Such a massive institutional change starts with education and ends with access and seems to be coming one school at a time.
After learning all about pancakes on a stick, I take the students on an imaginary journey to a working farm and demonstrate how we eat all different parts of plants, from the root to the flowers. The excitement in the room is tangible from both the students and the teachers as they pass around onions, broccoli, and herbs from my garden and ask a barrage of questions. Leaving the school, I feel a little defeated by the realization that I have gotten the kids excited about fresh local produce that they aren't likely to see in their cafeteria or on their dinner table, particularly since many of these kids reside in "food deserts," or neighborhoods where access to food is limited to nearby convenience stores that stock cheap, processed foods rather than fresh vegetables. For some, their only guaranteed meals are at school, creating even more of an incentive for those in the system to take charge.
One bright spot in the campaign to reform school nutrition is the USDA's National Farm to School Program. Over the last 12 years, the program has slowly spread to all 50 states. South Carolina began pilot programming in 2008 and officially created a statewide-staffed Farm to School program last year. The network currently has six regional field staff members, two for each region, one to work with schools, and the other to work with farmers. The staff are fixing the kinks created by a convenience-based system that is not set up to handle small farmers selling unprocessed fruits and vegetables. The program has provided small stipends to 52 schools across the state to assist them in starting school gardens, local food education, and food purchasing. It's a step in the right direction, but with 1,071 more schools in need of assistance and only a few farmers willing and able to meet the requirements for institutional sales, the journey has only just begun.
In Charleston, a handful of people have gotten a jump-start on fixing our school food culture. Since 2000, the Charleston Area Children's Garden Project (CACGP) has established 12 edible gardens at schools, orphanages, and homeless shelters. When Darlena Goodwin came on board as the director, she brought with her the experience of having taught in Title 1 schools and living with many of the food issues firsthand.
"I watched the food service system put the children's health on the back burner, and instead it was all about what was cheap, cheap, cheap," she says.
Under Goodwin's leadership, the program has been able to connect at-risk children with positive hands-on experience, creating and nurturing gardens. Beyond teaching students valuable science lessons, the CACGP also teaches students easy ways to prepare and enjoy the bounty of their efforts.
"Food habits are started very early on," Goodwin says. "If children have control over their diet and can grow, harvest, and cook their own vegetables, they are excited to eat them and will demand it at home and as adults."
The success of the gardens created high demand for produce in the schools as well as from parents at home, but Goodwin repeatedly hit brick walls when trying to bring the produce from the garden into the cafeteria. So she got creative and bypassed the complicated system, launching a pilot Mini-Farmers Market at Angel Oak Elementary School on Johns Island. Students brought their shopping lists, purchased discounted end-of-market vegetables, and took them home on the school bus. The first year of the market saw an incredible amount of support, serving an average of 125 families and selling roughly $500 worth of produce at each of the 30 weekly markets. The students' experiences in the garden, combined with cooking demonstrations and recipes, empowered them to provide for their families and advocate for healthy food in their homes.
Similarly, Karalee Nielsen saw that the students at her neighboring school, Mitchell Elementary, were also not able to access fresh local food in their cafeterias or their neighborhoods. With the help of Chauncey Jordan and Drew Harrison, Nielsen launched the Green Heart Project to bring healthy food options to the community. With the backing of her company, Revolutionary Eating Ventures, and the buy-in of principal Dirk Bedford, the Green Heart Project sowed a garden at Mitchell Elementary under the direction of Harrison. Now, the abundant vegetables are used in Nielsen's restaurants, where they sell specialty dishes, like the tempura avocado taco at Taco Boy, to raise funds for the project.
Earlier this year, the Green Hearts were approached by College of Charleston as part of a local farm-to-school effort funded by Boeing, to expand their garden and pilot an urban farm at Mitchell. Project manager Olivia Thompson consulted with experienced farm-to-school organizers as well as Lowcountry Local First to design a program. For the Lowcountry, a huge hurdle is the lack of farms able to meet the requirements to sell to institutions such as schools — more specifically, farms that have their Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification. Currently, only farms selling $500,000 or greater in agricultural products are required to obtain GAP certification, but third-party buyers like schools and other institutions can also require GAP certification from their purveyors. The certification is aimed at minimizing risks associated with food contamination, which involves a lot of bureaucratic red tape for farmers to navigate. SC Farm to School Coordinators, Clemson Extension Agents, SCDA, and Lowcountry Local First have all been working to provide training and technical assistance to farms trying to obtain GAP certification. For small operations like the Green Heart Project, this is a daunting but essential step in connecting the food from the school's farm with the school's cafeteria.
For inspiration, Harrison is looking to Bobby Behr, the athletic director at Summerville's Ashley Ridge High School, who not only established a school garden but has gotten it GAP certified, completing the final piece of the puzzle in connecting his productive garden with the kids in the cafeteria.
Behr is better known for his coaching and nationally awarded turf management, but as a backyard farmer, he loves growing his own food. With a green light from his principal, Behr launched a garden program utilizing funds from Clemson. With donations from Bees Ferry landfill, Lowe's, local farmers, and school staff, the project began to take shape. He was able to build a greenhouse, add raised beds, and hire a part-time agriculture teacher. Behr admits there were challenges, but it's clear that his passion for teaching students about farming has sustained the project — even if he had to foot some of the bill personally. He credits the students' positive response to the program for keeping him motivated. "The kids get into it because it's hands-on, experience-based learning," he says. Many of his students are special education students or kids who volunteer rather than being stuck inside for in-school suspension. Some of the same students that have behavioral issues in the classroom flourish in the garden environment where simple goals and constant motion seem to keep everyone in line.
When the hard work of the students resulted in hundreds of pounds of vegetables they wanted to sell to their cafeteria, Behr quickly learned about GAP. As the first school garden in the state to approach the USDA about certification, the state auditor brought down an entire team to document the process and help guide the staff. Behr says that the GAP certification is "do-able." He adds, "It's realistic for schools because they have a lot of the necessary facilities in place, and it's important because the kids see it from seed to cafeteria."
After a few minor adjustments, like adding an outdoor sink and creating a food safety manual, the garden passed the test. Now that the program is GAP certified, the produce from the garden is sold back into the cafeteria, where it is so popular with the students that the vegetable option always sells out. Looking to the future, Behr has secured funds to bring his agriculture teacher on full-time to run the program, which will include agriculture classes and a Future Farmers of America chapter.
The resounding message from all of those engaged in the farm-to-school movement is that it is a complicated system that has to be tackled one school at a time, because in the end it's all about the people. Behr notes, "It's hard to get started without the right people and a supportive principal. The key is to have someone take ownership."