When Atlanta Public Schools Nutrition Director Dr. Marilyn Hughes came to the district her vision was to create a nutrition program that connected the cafeteria, the classroom and the community.
More than a decade later that vision is a reality at a number of schools throughout the district, including Mays High School, where its teachers and students have established one of the state’s top agriculture clubs. The concept of healthy living is infused into the school culture through its participation in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Farm to School” program. The national initiative is designed to help schools provide access to fresh, organically grown food for students and their communities.
Last week, USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon stopped by to tour Mays’ greenhouse and aquaponics classroom, where fresh fish (tilapia) and vegetables are raised and grown, and the school cafeteria, where the food is prepared and eaten. He left very impressed.
“We want to change the image of the urban food program,” Dr. Hughes said. “We want to broaden it so that we constantly make that connection between the cafeteria, the classroom and the community. We want people to think of our communities as places where you eat, work and live a healthy lifestyle. In order for it to be sustainable, we have to have collective ownership by the students, teachers and the community.”
At Mays, all three groups have bought in. Students have created one of the state’s top agriculture clubs, teachers are infusing agriculture and “green living” concepts into their lessons, from science to social studies and history, and the community is involved as well.
“We have a lot of people who walk on our campus for exercise and they’ll pick things from our traditional garden,” said Sydney Stepney, a senior and participant in the Governor’s Honors Program for Agricultural Sciences. “It’s important that we get back to eating natural foods.”
Sydney said she is inspired by wanting to discover alternative ways to treat debilitating diseases like dementia, which her grandmother is battling now.
“She takes so many pills and I just don’t like it,” Sydney said. “I think all of the diseases that are prevalent in our community, like dementia, diabetes, high blood pressure, are all linked to the foods we eat.”
Sydney, who has been accepted by the University of Kentucky and is in the running for a Posse Scholarship from Texas A&M University, plans to major in nutrition and exercise physiology, open a fitness center that will include and utilize an urban garden, and create her own natural multi vitamin.
The school’s agriculture club and “Farm to School” program are designed to produce more students like Sydney who may be able to take advantage of the country’s “green” movement and the growing popularity of organically grown and raised food.
Mays Assistant Principal Dr. Wardell Hunter and Instructional Coach Hajj Womack spoke with United States Congressmen John Lewis and David Scott about the importance of agriculture in schools. Both said they are working on legislation that promotes making college scholarship funds available for students majoring in agriculture.
“It’s something that Republicans and Democrats can get behind,” Womack said. “Agriculture is very important to our country, and it would provide excellent opportunities for our students.”