Last month I reconnected with my southern roots and traveled to my hometown, Atlanta, Georgia for a week’s immersion into the current developments around the local food movement and school garden education, particularly with my family’s organization, Seeds of Nutrition. My trip, however, was filled with much more than a visit to a few school gardens. I would soon be surprised by the South’s progress in the sustainable food movement.
This newer leg of the Mendez Foundation, Seeds of Nutrition, has developed into a school-based education program offering experiential learning through gardens and cooking. Prior to Slow Food Nation, I worked with the Mendez Foundation to create a scope and sequence for this curriculum that teaches elementary children about where their food comes from. Now based in Atlanta, Seeds of Nutrition has taken hold in three Atlanta public schools. It involves school children in every step from planting to harvesting to chopping and tasting. Teachers and administrators are filled with excitement as they have seen the Seeds of Nutrition lessons reinforce their day-to-day lessons in math, science and language arts, rather than pull time from these core competencies. In Atlanta, schoolteachers and parents are asking for school gardens and recognize the importance and potential of the school garden as the logical venue to teach the year’s curriculum through experiential learning activities.
My week in the South was to end with the 12th annual Georgia Organics conference. This year’s conference was a record-setting success, drawing more than 1,100 attendees. Overall, it was very impressive and featured workshops by Slow Food’s Erika Lesser and Josh Viertel, Will Allen of Growing Power, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, and the famous Barefoot Farmer, a biodynamic farmer from Tennessee, among others. The workshops covered the usual topics: from biodiversity to institutional purchasing to young farmers, with a panel of elementary and high school students making changes in their communities, young farmers, and Severine Fleming of the Greenhorns. And, the closing feast featured beautiful, southern food from local farms and chefs. With Michael Pollan’s closing keynote address, the energy in the tent was undeniable.
The conference weekend ended with a Slow Food Southeast Leaders regional meeting at Love is Love Farm, a CSA farm in metro Atlanta operated by Joe Reynolds and Judith Winfrey. When not working the land at Love is Love, Judith puts in her time as the co-leader of Slow Food Atlanta, and Joe is the farm educator with Seeds of Nutrition. The South is truly doing it and there is quite a wave of momentum and excitement flowing through Georgia right now. People are moving and shaking.
That was supposed to be the end of my trip — an inspiring conference with like-minded people. But, a temptation to stay for a reggae show kept me in the Atlanta area for a few more days. Little did I know that I would miss hearing the Original Wailers for a surprise adventure. At the conference, I met Daron “Farmer D” Joffe. In retrospect, knowing now that we have mutual friends out here in California, we were destined to meet there. Farmer D sits on the board and was previously Vice President of Georgia Organics. I had heard of his many ventures and accomplishments, and was soon able to take a look at some of them firsthand. With aligned missions of spreading the work and word of sustainable agriculture to all, we embarked on a journey through coastal Georgia to visit some of his farm projects.
Our first stop was historic Savannah where he is consulting with the Bethesda Boys Home, the oldest boys home in the country, to install a biodynamic farm, which will provide not only produce, but educational and micro-enterprise opportunities for the boys. As with most of Farmer D’s work, he maintains a perspective of social justice and giving back to the community. After stopping at a local restaurant in Savannah, Cha Bella, that is exercising the farm-to-table protocol, we visited the restaurant’s farm, also a Farmer D project. This little farm not only grows food for the restaurant, but also offers educational opportunities to youth. A group of college students from Vermont’s Middlebury College came to the farm for a volunteer day to contribute their time to the Planting Community Project, a community food project (CFP) grant from the USDA, spearheaded by Farmer D in partnership with Union Mission, a Savannah shelter for men, women and families. The project focuses on connecting homeless individuals with limited resource farmers; and in addition to providing access to local organic produce, participants learn about organic growing, cooking and entrepreneurship.
Our next stop was Cumberland Island, the nation’s largest National Park Island, complete with wild horses, gators, wilderness and turn-of-the-century architecture. The Greyfield Inn on the island hired Farmer D to install an organic vegetable garden for the inn’s restaurant. Eventually the Greyfield Inn will also use the gardens and its produce to bring in chefs from around the nation to offer guests a complete farm-to-table experience. In one 13 hour day we transformed overgrown beds of weeds filled with legless lizards and sand gnats into ripe and fertile beds replete with Farmer D’s biodynamic compost (a certified biodynamic product that he makes from the compostable waste gathered from Whole Foods Markets all over the southeast) and his organic fertilizer, ready to be planted with greens, herbs, root veggies, and flowers. In alignment with biodynamic principles, and on the new moon, we prepared the beds with a biodynamic prep so they could begin their transformation.
A few islands north would be our last stop. The farm on Hampton Island provides produce to the island’s Culinary Program, and more impressively, is a venue to bring school children through for agricultural learning. Seventy-five kindergarteners arrived from the Savannah Country Day School to spend the day learning about where food comes from at this pristine farm. Farmer D and his co-educators lead the children through explorations of how plants and animals grow. From having their own school gardens and rich field trips such as this, these little Georgia kindergartners were quite literate about food origins.
This was my first exposure to the South’s sustainable agriculture uprising. It was a refreshing feeling, one of pure joy. I’ve lived away from the South for 14 years now, and noticed a major shift on this trip. The sustainable food movement wave is spanning across the country into pockets we may not have expected a decade ago. Not that sustainable agriculture is new to the South. Will Harris’ family-owned grass-fed beef operation in Bluffton, GA, White Oak Pastures, has been in operation for five generations. But I witnessed for the first time a shift of awareness in Atlanta and beyond. Schools, parents, institutions, and communities are ripe for change. Their arms are open and they are ready to take the steps. The South shall rise again!