Agriculture has been a top business in Hall County for decades.
Now, the Hall County school system is capitalizing on that and bringing local food into local schools, with the help of a grant from the state Department of Agriculture and Department of Education.
The Feed My School for a Week grant will put 75 to 100 percent Georgia-grown meals in school lunches one week next spring. Hall County's Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy was chosen for a pilot program, along with a school in both Bleckley and Colquitt counties.
"Why are we shipping in from Chile and California when we can create micro-economies for schools? We saw an opportunity ... to see if schools were willing to do it for a week and see how do we scale it for 36 weeks and for multiple schools," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said.
Schofield said this is an opportunity to put healthier and fresher food in front of Hall County schoolchildren. He said the partnership between the state departments will look at how much food is needed to fill the state's school lunches with Georgia-grown food and how much of an economic impact there is from using more local produce and protein.
Though the announcement was made less than a week ago, Hall County school board members already have started contacting local growers, the Georgia Farm Bureau and the Hall County Cooperative Extension to get communication started.
"We don't have a lot now but I think it's an exciting challenge," Schofield said. "It just makes so much sense in this day and age."
The grant is part of Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black's farm-to-school campaign.
"This is a great leap forward to help show young Georgians where the food they eat is grown," Black said in a news release. "Through this program, students will learn about the processes taken to bring their school meals from a local Georgia farm to the cafeteria table while simultaneously receiving a healthy, delicious meal."
Cookie Palmer, Hall County Schools' nutrition program director, defined farm-to-school as a way to shorten the distance between where food is grown and where food is eaten.
She said the longer fresh foods are in transit from the field to the grocery store or restaurant, the more quality is affected and the more fuel is used.
"The reality of food is that it doesn't grow in a store, it grows from a farm. That's the connection we're all trying to make," Palmer said.
Hillary Savage, who also is a head of school nutrition in Hall County, said the school board had been struggling to find a successful way of doing farm to school when she learned of the grant. She started the application process and both she and Schofield agreed that Wauka Mountain was the appropriate school for the pilot.
"It's in close proximity to farms and I knew they had a really fantastic school garden, so already many lessons (on gardening) were in place," Savage said.
Melanie Hollingsworth, nutrition outreach specialist for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, said the department was "very pleased" with Hall County.
"They have the perfect school for us to do it in. They're already trying to enforce some of these efforts," she said.
There is no specific monetary amount associated with the grants yet, as everyone involved is waiting to see how much it will cost to contract food from local growers, a price that depends on what foods will be in production.
Hollingsworth said the lunch food will vary greatly.
For protein sources, she said chicken and beef are on the top in Georgia, and there will be a variety of fruits and vegetables depending on when the three schools do their Georgia-grown weeks.
Hall County Extension Agent Michael Wheeler said some of the foods available include greens such as cabbage and lettuce, possibly some squash and strawberries. He said other sources of local food could be stored produce such as potatoes.
If the program expands from the spring to the fall, Wheeler said late spring and summer crops would be available — blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, corn and peppers, for example.
"Overall (producers and growers) could play a pretty significant role. I think it would be a matter of marketing the program to the growers so they are aware of it, and maybe if they know that this is happening, they can plan more planting acreage to accommodate for the program," Wheeler said.
Savage said the school board will have a planning meeting sometime this month or in December to further examine grower options and a good week to implement the grant.
"Something of this magnitude hasn't been done before," Hollingsworth said. "We wanted to branch it out from Metro Atlanta and see what it looks like in the whole state."
Hollingsworth said overall, the goal of the program is to see what the challenges are to get Georgia-grown food into school systems. She said officials also want to see if there is any sort of health benefit feeding kids fresher foods.
The ultimate goal of this pilot farm-to-school program is to have every school in the state use locally sourced food, Hollingsworth said.
"Georgia ranks fourth in fruit and vegetable production in the U.S. It's very doable. It's a matter of when and how it's done," she said.
In addition to eating Georgia-grown food, students in the three schools will participate in a Georgia commodity taste-test, have a kick-off assembly featuring Black and State School Superintendent John Barge and enter essay and art contests based on agriculture.
"It provides a huge educational moment to teach agriculture and local business impacts," Wheeler said. "You can get into the farming aspect of it all but the economic impact of supporting local businesses goes beyond farming. It goes to local hardware stores, buying groceries from a local grocery store instead of a chain. You can teach all of that full connection that everything is interlaced with another."