ALBANY — The Georgia Department of Education recognized Flint River Fresh Executive Director Fredando Jackson, better known as “Farmer Fredo,” as Farmer of the Year at the Golden Radish Award ceremony last month after Jackson was nominated by the Dougherty County School System’s nutrition program.

The award is a reflection of the work done over the last several years to add a new perspective to nutritional education.

Blaine Allen, school nutrition director for the Dougherty County School System, said there are teaching gardens at all of the system’s elementary schools — including at the Magnolia Pre-K facility.

“We are (currently) in the midst of planting our fall gardens,” Allen said.

Several Partners in Excellence, among them Flint River Fresh, have worked to foster these gardens since their establishment seven years ago.

“They (partners) not only help us plant, they are engaged with going into the schools,” Allen said. “It gives that school another learning tool. It is an educational tool very important in the teaching process.”

This learning tool can be used in a variety of different ways. Math teachers can use it to help students determine what each garden’s yield will be, science teachers can use it for a lesson on photosynthesis and art classes may go out and sketch the plants.

Allen said the process on how the gardens are utilized as part of the curriculum depends on the school. On some campuses, there are classes solely dedicated to the garden.

Students assist in the planting process, and they use technology available to them — including iPads — to track the progress of the fall gardens until they are harvested in January and February.

When they are harvested, the products from the garden, including collards, romaine lettuce, spinach, radishes and green onions, are incorporated into the school’s cafeteria menu.

Taste tests and cooking demonstrations are also conducted.

“They get a chance to be a part of the process,” Allen said. “They think vegetables come from Walmart.”

Allen said some campuses have been extremely engaged in the process, with a few requesting extra beds. One school, Turner Elementary School, has asked for extra beds for the purposes of helping families in need nearby.

“It has been very beneficial,” Allen said.

Allen said teachers are eager to have a tool that allows students something to see and touch, while the students gain in their nutritional education by actively planting and harvesting.

Giving the students that component can help the importance of good nutrition sink in, and it benefits them in the long run.

“One way to combat chronic illness is to eat green, leafy vegetables and we grow those in our gardens,” Allen said. “We can provide a healthy lunch that meets USDA regulations.”

Once the plants are harvested and served at the school, there is a sense of pride and ownership not gained by picking them from a store or having the product handed to them.

“That sense of pride is multiplied, coupled with being able to taste the products,” Allen said. “If they make healthy choices, that lasts a lifetime; it is a unique experience to see and touch.

“Being a part of the process of having a hand in it, taste it and learn, it is a win-win.”

In the summer months that the gardens are not otherwise active, Flint River Fresh uses them for crops such as sweet potatoes so the community can be fed — in turn addressing the food insecurity that some neighborhoods in Albany face.

Going forward, a partnership is bringing a garden to Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy, and a greenhouse is being developed at Monroe Comprehensive High School.

“The goal is to be sustainable over time,” Allen said.

The sustainability, he added, is dependent on partners working together. Radium Springs Elementary School was recognized as Garden of the Year because of school engagement. Without these partners, Allen said, the gardens are unable to serve their purpose.

“Everybody is collaborating to help that garden (at Radium Springs) thrive,” Allen said. “We need to make sure we sustain it as a teaching tool; students can achieve academic success in the classroom and thrive outside the classroom.

“We cannot do it without collaboration. When you introduce vegetables kids won’t get at home, it is amazing the response you get.”

The key is to put resources into the program, some of which has included grant money.

“When you think about local and giving back, it frees resources to do other things,” Allen said. “We have the vision to expand the program. The vision doesn’t exist without support.

“Overall, it is a melting pot in the community. When you have that melting pot, that is when you create that sustainability.”

The Golden Radish Award was given to local educational agencies in Georgia that have been doing extraordinary Farm-to-School work. Ninety Georgia school districts were recognized at this year’s Golden Radish Awards. Collectively, these districts served more than 2 million meals featuring local food and tended 4,646 school gardens while conducting 4,432 hands-on food and gardening activities.

Awards were presented by Georgia DOE, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia Department of Public Health, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, Bright from the Start: Department of Early Care and Learning, and Georgia Organics. The Georgia DOE presented an award to a Georgia farmer whose work in school districts is exceptional.

The Georgia DOE recognizes the importance of Farm to School as an integral part of educating the whole child, fostering both physical and mental health.

“We encourage the creation of educational opportunities for students that allows them to identify where food comes from, learn why this is important and to apply knowledge from all subject areas in an engaging way,” officials from Georgia DOE said in a statement following the Golden Radish Award ceremony. “For this reason and many others, we are piloting the nation’s first-ever elementary agriculture education curriculum. This builds on the commitment we made when we established the first-ever academic nutritionist role to better connect our classrooms with our school nutrition programs.

“We realize that Georgia farmers have generously given their time and resources to support school districts in these efforts across the state. Farmers provide nutritious, high-quality food that is served in our school nutrition programs and discussed in our classrooms. They serve as true partners in education for their communities as they support the work of our teachers, nutrition staff and other community leaders. They are truly fueling Georgia’s future.”

Georgia DOE Superintendent Richard Woods, in partnership with School Nutrition, presented the Farmer of the Year Award to Jackson for his contributions to the program.

“This year’s recipient has committed countless hours to his work around agricultural outreach to low-income communities in rural areas of Georgia,” Woods said. “He teaches sustainable practices for feeding communities, preserving the environment, and empowering young people.

“He has assisted with 22 school and community gardens, organized a mobile farmers’ market, supplied school nutrition programs with locally grown produce, including strawberries and collards, and provided technical assistance to schools through teaching gardens, lessons and taste tests in classrooms and cafeterias.”

Staff Writer

I'm a 2007 graduate of Georgia Southern University, and I've been a reporter for The Albany Herald since 2008. I cover news related to health care, Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany, SOWEGA Council on Aging and other areas as assigned.

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