Elementary students had the choice of Georgia-grown chicken thighs or cheesy nachos for lunch Monday.
Most of them chose the chicken.
That chicken lunch kicked off “Feed My School for a Week,” a collaboration between the Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Department of Education to get locally grown products into school cafeterias.
Wauka Mountain Multiple Intelligences Academy in North Hall County was chosen as one of the three pilot schools in the state.
Throughout the week, the lunch menu will be 75-100 percent made up of locally grown produce, including milk from Clermont, fruit from Alto, chicken from Cumming and vegetables from Atlanta.
“It’s great,” said Scott Glover of Mountain Fresh Creamery, who is providing the milk. “It’s exciting for us to be able to be a part of this. It means a lot to take a product that’s produced and processed right here in their backyard and get it to these kids.”
The week was launched by an assembly in the gym Monday afternoon with guest speaker Gary Black, the state’s agriculture commissioner.
He said the department’s goal was to set in motion a program that could be sustained over a long period of time.
“There have been many successful farm-to-school ventures, but we were trying to think about how to get a sustainable effort instead of just a one-shot deal,” Black said.
A community meeting was held in February to get local feedback and to start “connecting the dots” between local growers and school officials.
“We didn’t do this — local people did this,” Black said. “The energy to sustain this over a long period of time has to come from local leadership. We wanted to introduce the idea and help propose the questions and connect the local dots.”
Hillary Savage, Hall County Schools’ nutrition director, said the challenge for sustaining the program will be to find local growers who can support the amount of food the 33 county schools need.
“That’s the trickiest thing,” she said. “If we’re going to make this thing sustainable, how do we find growers that meet the volume that Hall County needs? That’s going to be the challenge.”
The program also teaches students where their food comes from and who grows it.
“I think it’d be great if they could do this in all the schools,” Glover said. “I think it’d be a good opportunity for these kids to learn about the products that they’re eating and where their food comes from. ... Most of them just think it comes from a grocery store.”
Black said this program will be piloted one or two more years and then it will have a “framework that any school can take and utilize.”
“The bottom line is: One step at a time, we’re making progress,” Black said.
And the progress that is possible, he said, is limitless.
It could lead into different curriculum, different programs and even in-school greenhouses, like one Wauka Mountain already has.
“At North Hall High School and East Hall High School, what if the ag programs in those high schools said: ‘Wait a minute, what can we do with our greenhouse? Could we grow the salad bar for a week?’” Black said. “Then you get all the ag production — the practical nature of the greenhouse work — but you also get the synergy of actually seeing it happen and seeing it on the dinner plate.”
Bleckley and Colquitt counties are also piloting the program.
“I support it,” Savage said. “I think in this kind of economy we need to embrace efforts that spur local economy. So I think it’s a no-brainer to invest in these local growers.”
Savage said it is hard to determine the price difference between local produce and what the system uses now, mainly because a lot of the food was donated this week.
“It’s very hard to pinpoint that right now,” Savage said.
But, she said, some food is more expensive, including milk, while other produce could save the county a few dollars because of the proximity of the produce.
At Wauka Mountain, local foods will be used for lunch through this Friday.
The kids seem to have taken to the idea.
“(The students) were all really excited,” said Regina Jackson, Wauka Mountain nutrition manager. “The kids picked most of the things that were grown locally. They chose the chicken thighs because it was Georgia grown over the cheesy nachos. That was a change.”