How to Get Schools To Buy (More) Local, and Teach Kids to Cook

Georgia is an agricultural state. Governor Nathan Deal sure likes to say that. 

But how much of that local agriculture - peaches, collard greens, pecans, other fruits and veggies - actually makes it into the school system, feeding students K-12? Five percent

Changing that is essentially what the national Farm to School movement is about.

As part of a slap crazy weekend in celebration of sustainable agriculture, otherwise known as the Georgia Organics annual conference, I spent my Thursday hanging out with school nutritionists, school garden coordinators and other educators as part of GO's fifth annual Farm to School Summit. 

My little part in the affair was moderating a panel on the future of Home Ec in public schools which featured Hugh Acheson, a local ag science instructor (Debbie Mitchell) and a Home Ec teacher (Hope Zimmerman), and Daphnne Bonaparte, who manages Family and Consumer Sciences at the state level. It's not exactly farm-to-school, but it's connected: Getting more kids exposed to good food and teaching lifelong healthy habits.

Basically, the consensus we seemed to come to was that A) Athens' schools are crushing it as far as the ag science/farm to school/cooking classes that now make up Family and Consumer Sciences are concerned, and B) plenty of rural schools and fancy urban schools aren't worried whether or not their students can boil water, as long as they get into good colleges. Repeat after me: STEM, STEM, STEM!

The culinary curriculum in FCS is vague, according to panelists, and doesn't explicitly devote class time to learning basic cookery. Bonaparte's overview of what's happening around the state didn't sound horrible, but within her responses, in what was unsaid, it was clear there's a lot of shaking up that can be done. Clearly, implementing curriculum to such a huge school system is political. Science and Math, and not Stew, is what's on most folks minds. She also made it clear that local school systems hold more power than we think. Perhaps that's how Clarke Middle School has been so successful bringing farming literally to the school, and combining culinary and agricultural knowledge in the classroom. 

Whatever the state's plans, Mr. Acheson isn't waiting around. Kids need to know how to poach an egg, dang it, and we need to teach them now!

He's leading a charge to remake how Home Ec is taught. I first heard Acheson speak about this back in 2012. He had just returned from a James Beard-sponsored Food Policy Boot Camp for chefs, and he floated the idea of writing a new Family and Consumer Sciences curriculum: 

Following the boot camp training, the next step for Acheson the advocate is forming an organization that will “re-do” and re-brand home economics in schools nationwide.

Financial and technical support is already in place for such a program, he said, and it’s now time to finalize the particulars.

“What I want to give kids is a non-gender specific idea of life skills,” he said, which includes sewing on a button, cooking for four people with $10, basic gardening and home finances.

Clarke County schools, where both of Acheson’s daughters matriculate, would benefit from a new home economics curriculum, he said.

“The only way we are going to improve the way kids eat is when we have a generation of kids with a new food knowledge that the last generation didn’t have,” he said. “The last 50 years of convenience food have really taken its toll.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a time when we all shop at the farmers market and knit together, but I do think there is an effective way to change things.”

Acheson said he's met with local school board staff, has worked out early funding, and is about to hire the first employee for an initiative that aims to teach kids basic life skills like feeding a family a healthy, home-cooked meal for $10, and reading the fine print on a Verizon contract. It'll start locally, but soon spread nationally, he hopes.

One thing he said was notable about the plan was making the curriculum applicable even if a talented, go-getting teacher like the ones at his daughter's school (Mitchell and Zimmerman) was on staff. Sounds good, but it looks like we still have to get rural schoosl to even care. I don't blame that thinking. Small town America has collapsed. All the jobs are degreed and in urban environments. Those school systems are likely surveying their landscape and doing what they think is best.

It's going to be interesting.

I'll post a bit tomorrow about what the day's Keynote Speaker Deborah Kane, the USDA head of farm to school, had to say. But I'll end with this quote from her, commenting on how she wishes she could make the farm to school mission statement way simpler than its current amalgam of safe, inclusive, rambling wording: "It doesn't have to be complicated," she said. Her preferred motto? "We Make Awesome Food Available For Kids Across The Country."