IMG_3595By Tina Dirmann

BCBSLA Foundation Staff Writer

It’s hard to believe a sixth grader would really ask, “If we planted for chickens, will they grow out of the ground?”

Darnella Winston, cooperative field specialist for the Indian Springs Farmers Association.

But that’s exactly what one student asked of former teacher turned Farm to School advocate Darnella Winston.

“Another wanted to know where watermelons come from,”  Winston said. “She wondered if the melons grew out of the ground. That’s how far removed our kids are from where their food comes from. They don’t know! They really have no idea.”

It’s an education gap that Winston’s cooperative, The Indian Springs Farmers Association, hopes to solve by forging partnerships between regional farmers and the schools in their backyards. And it’s an idea our partners with the Central Louisiana Local Foods Initiative (a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant funded program) have not only embraced, they landed a USDA grant to make it happen. Tuesday’s workshop, dubbed Foodapalooza: Farm to School Edition, was the first step.

“Today is not about obstacles,” said John Dean, director of regional innovation for the Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance‬ (one of our local foods initiative partners). “I don’t want to hear all the ways we can’t get Farm to School in Central Louisiana. We can do it. And today is about how to get started.”

Nearly 100 area farmers, teachers, school administrators and local foods activists came together at the Coughlin-Saunders Performing Arts Center in Louisiana to hear Winston speak. She’s a former teacher who left the classroom to return to her family’s farm after seeing first hand the disconnect between classrooms and farmers. Today, she is a leader in the Indian Springs Farmers Association, a cooperative made up of more than 30 small farmers in rural Mississippi who banded together to sell produce to schools in their region and parts of Louisiana.

There will be resistance, she told the crowd of listeners. For example…

“Don’t count on your  cafeteria workers to know how to cook a sweet potato,” she said. “They might know how to scoop it out of a can and heat it up. But an actual sweet potato? You would be surprised to know how many cafeteria workers don’t know how to cook fresh vegetables.”

But they are willing to learn, she said.DSCN1958

Her stories caused some laughter. But they also highlighted a greater need.

“I tell my kids, ‘If I can teach you how to grow your own food, you will never go hungry,’ ” she said.  “And when my farmers come to a school, I don’t just want them to drop off their food and run. I want them to go into the classrooms, talk to the kids, answer questions. It’s so much more than just about fresher food in the cafeteria. It’s about education. It’s about creating another generation of buyers.”

BCBSLAF President Michael Tipton and Strategic Initiatives Manager Lydia Martin pause for a moment in front of the Foodapalooza trolley.

After her talk, participants crowded into city trolleys before touring Gray-Walk Farms, Inglewood Farms and the Alexandria Farmers Market. They also heard from folks with the Good Food Project, a community garden that helps to feed Central Louisiana’s food bank clients.

Michael Tipton, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana DSCN1948 Foundation’s new president, also got involved, joining the farm tours and engaging leaders in the Farm to School movement. In the end, Tipton noted how impressed he was with the folks he met and their passion for the cause.

“It was pretty powerful to see so many people working together to give kids better access to our local farms and the healthy foods they offer,” he said. “I really look forward to seeing this movement expand statewide.”

So, did the day have an impact? Clearly. Melissa Savage, a career and business teacher at Alexandria Senior High School, told one local reporter that she now wants to promote farming as a career option for students.

“Anything new or different I can bring into my classroom is great,” Savage said.

For more information on the day, check out this great article