As a kindergarten teacher, Robin Edens was an outlier in the group of mostly middle and high school teachers at the University of Georgia learning how to introduce food-based learning to their students.
The three-day workshop immersed participants in the ins and outs of the food system, including how to plant and maintain a garden, the intricacies of the food distribution network, and how to integrate food into the school curriculum to talk abut larger societal issues.
“Even though I teach kindergarten kids, I think it’s important that we start them early,” said Edens, a teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in Winder. “Most of the people here teach middle school and high school kids, but I think the earlier the better with these kids. By the time they get to that age, if they don’t have any knowledge then they’re not even interested.”
A dozen teachers traveled to Athens for the workshop this summer, now in its third year. The program is a collaborative initiative of the UGA Office of Service-Learning’s Grow It Know It program, UGA Cooperative Extension and the student-run UGArden.
“It’s amazing to see the energy in that room and how excited they all are to get back to their classrooms and connect food and the garden to their classroom and their students and incorporate it all together,” said Charlie Evans, a graduate research assistant with Grow It Know It who helped with the program. “Having teachers actually do the activities that they’re going to do with students, have open discussions with each other, go out in the UGArden and harvest and wash and everything else; all these hands-on components and network connections they’re able to make is what makes this a really great opportunity.”
The workshop also included specialists from UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and the Mary Frances Early College of Education, who spent time with the teachers outside in the UGArden and inside a classroom to talk about harvesting, composting, food safety and school nutrition programs, among other things.
“It’s sort of like drinking from a fire hose when we’re trying to teach all of this,” said Kathy Thompson, a clinical professor with the College of Education who has been a part of the teacher training program since its inception in 2018. “Really, it’s just to whet their appetite to get them interested and at least have some knowledge about everything. A lot of them just need confidence that they can do it. … There are a lot of ways to take something like food and gardening in lots of different directions in the classroom, no matter what content you’re teaching.”
Limited to teachers from Barrow and Clarke counties for the first two years, the teacher training workshop expanded this year to include educators from Oconee, Jackson and Henry counties as well. That opened the door for Tim Griffeth, an agriculture teacher who was looking for a professional development workshop to help him better utilize the new school garden at North Oconee High School.
“The amount of resources that they have put in our hands to understand the community connections and food safety things is really great,” said Griffeth. “It’s tough to find that information, and they’ve consolidated it and given it to us in a nice package to be able to go back and modify it to what we’re trying to do in our district and community.”
Thompson and the other program instructors follow up with participants throughout the school year, answering any questions and ensuring they have the necessary resources and connections to incorporate their training in the classroom.
The hope is that teachers pass along their newfound food faculties to students, showing a new generation the importance of where food comes from and how it affects the world.
“I do this because I want students to have these experiences, and the only way for students to have these experiences is for us to provide these experiences to teachers,” Thompson said. “They’ve got to be able to see how the curriculum connects to the real world and how to address the issues in the world.”