SOUTH FORSYTH — At an elementary school in south Forsyth, students can be seen reaching for a Cobb salad over cookies. They even get excited when kale chips are on the menu.
A brownie is not what they’re eating for dessert. It’s the name of a chicken whose eggs top that salad.
Sharon Elementary was the leading effort in farm-to-school practices that resulted in the Forsyth County school system being awarded a bronze-level Golden Radish Award for the 2013-2014 school year.
The award recognized 30 districts for their success in exposing students to fresh, locally sourced produce while incorporating nutrition education into the classroom through a medley of methods.
Last year, Sharon was selected as one of five elementary schools in the state to participate in Georgia Grown’s Feed My School program. The program spotlights the school’s garden — called DIGS, for discover, inspire, grow, succeed — by featuring a different seasonal theme to growing produce each month.
Lesson plans, developed by parent-volunteers, allow every student in the school to be involved in maintaining the garden, which houses anything from greens, apples and banana peppers to compost boxes, art made from recycled bottle caps and a chicken coop called The Kluck Bucket.
They grow radishes, of course. But they’re not gold.
“It’s really all about, how can we get them back to their natural environment?” said Amy Bartlett, Sharon’s principal.
She said lessons are also entwined with the school’s science lab, where students have learned about composting, recycling and solar power.
It ends in the cafeteria
The garden doesn’t just allow students to get outside and learn about produce in a hands-on environment, Bartlett said. A central factor of the Feed My School program is the emphasis on locally grown food.
Students are taught the importance of sustaining local farmers, she said, including why to keep money close to home and how local produce is fresher than cross-country shipments.
“We also teach them about Georgia agriculture, what that involves and means, and different career pathways they may end up following in the future,” Bartlett said. “[We teach] what all the stages are to that and about their health and wellness.
“It all ends in the cafeteria.”
Dee Mathis, Sharon’s cafeteria manager, uses produce from the garden in her daily lunch offerings.
“I try to bring as much as I can to my kitchen,” she said.
Students going through the lunch line choose an entrée and three sides. When the Forsyth County News visited the cafeteria, items included an all veggie salad, a butternut squash and bean mix, fruit mold and raisins. She even had a limited amount of full-size Cobb salads featuring eggs from the chickens.
Monthly taste tests allow students to give input on what they want to see more of on their trays. That’s where they chose items like kale, radishes and snap peas.
Last April, 85 to 90 percent of the food served at Sharon for one week was locally sourced. According to Mathis, that meant it came from their backyard garden, Forsyth County or Georgia as the culmination of its Feed My School pioneer year.
While Bartlett’s school and Mathis’ cafeteria are the pilot program for the county, the Golden Radish was a district designation in the effort to bring some type of farm-to-school program to every school.
What Sharon does cannot work at every school, said Valerie Bowers, the district’s director of school nutrition, so the goal is to tailor a program to each school’s assets and capabilities.
Schools are already planting the seeds for their own program.
Cumming Elementary has done taste tests with carrots and edamame from its garden, said Bowers, who came to the district from the state Department of Agriculture.
Chestatee Elementary is awaiting approval from the facilities department to build its garden and has used its herb garden in its cafeteria to make salsa.
North Forsyth High’ staff has begun to brainstorm ways to incorporate agricultural activities, Bowers said.
Even when schools cannot provide produce from a campus garden — and Sharon can’t rely solely on its own resources — a local vendor is hired by the district to bring in produce that is as local as possible.
“[The award] is a comment on how hard they’re working at [Sharon],” Bowers said. “The thing that worked from there we have been able to take on to other schools.
“We’re applying again [for the award] this year, and hopefully we’ll get silver. We’re very proud of the fact that we won [in our first year], but it’s where we started the program and expanded from there [that’s our main goal].”
The folks at Sharon intend to grow with the county.
“When you teach kids anything at this age, it becomes a habit,” said Sharon’s Mathis. “Those can be good or bad habits. It starts at home, but we can reinforce it here.”