I first heard of Jones Valley Teaching Farm around 2003. The farm was still a small plot of land located close to The Garage, in Birmingham, Alabama. I drove down one cold winter day to have lunch with (then director) Edwin Marty. There was one hoop house, and running water, and not much else—yet. It was ambitious, and it felt like the beginning of something special.
Later, I heard much more from Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q co-founder Nick Pihakis and chef Drew Robinson. Those two so fully believe in the farm’s mission and methods that they back up their beliefs with fundraisers and hands-on support. I am also convinced that the organization can make real difference in the community.
Since my first visit in 2003, Jones Valley Teaching Farm has grown and moved to downtown Birmingham. Since 2007, the organization has expanded their farm and their scope with a focus on educating students, visitors, and community gardeners on how to grow real, healthy food. Today, the farm is a hub of downtown green. The farmers on site use both established sustainable and experimental practices, with the goal of developing a flourishing ecosystem in the heart of a bustling city. They currently grow over 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers and offer their produce for sale on-site and at local farmers’ markets—generating over $45,000 in sales in 2014 alone.
The organization works with students, families, and the local school system to establish an understanding of why good food matters and how to make healthy choices, using real life context. Their mission and methods are completely student based; they want to educate and empower young people to be problem solvers and agents for change in their own communities. Jones Valley does this by explaining real-world food issues and providing hands-on experiences that improve student learning and increase access to healthy food.
Jones Valley’s methods are simple and effective. The staff works primarily in local schools to develop student-centered curriculum that exists alongside and supplements current teachings. The farm collaborates with schools because they are community hubs—and because teachers are invested in their students’ success and can maximize the curriculum’s impact on those students.
The Good School Food program is the cornerstone of Jones Valley’s work with students. The program was created with one basic concept: that students will understand and buy into the concept of “good food” if they continue to learn about it from elementary school until their graduation from high school. The program works with school communities to improve understanding across the board (from students to administrators and parents) and increase access to healthy food.
At the heart of the Good School Food program is Farm Lab—a teaching farm and outdoor classroom that can be established on individual school campuses and that can engage both students and educators in critical thinking and standards-based lessons that can be integrated into existing math, science, social studies, engineering, and language arts curriculum. Plus, the Jones Valley staff reports that 90% of participating students have tried new fruits and vegetables through the Farm Lab program.
The Good School Food program has also established student-run farmers’ markets that teach students to operate and manage their own “businesses” at school. The individual markets are open weekly during the regular school year and allow students to work within the Birmingham community—creating better access to good food and more affordable pricing for the community at large. They also gain practical skills for management and marketing practices. In partnership with the Good School Food program, these markets have sold over 2,900 pounds of fresh produce to the community.
Jones Valley’s Seed to Plate allows students to see exactly where their food comes from. The experience is interactive and includes a cooking lesson with emphasis on nutrition and healthy eating. To date, over 15,000 students have participated in the Seed to Plate program.
Importantly, Jones Valley Teaching Farm believes that long-term success and understanding of healthy food habits depends on community and parent involvement. As a result, they have developed The Family Kitchen program—a 4-week cooking and nutrition educational series offered to local families throughout the year. The Jones Valley team partners with chefs from Southern Living and Cooking Light to create healthy family menus with affordable price points.
Jones Valley Teaching Farm has created a series of dinners and events hosted by community members and businesses called Gather. Each event is organized using local farmers and artisans and raises money and awareness for Good School Food. As part of this series, and in conjunction with our Friends of the Café | Makeshift Dinner series, we will be hosting a brunch on Sunday, May 17, at the Factory Café with proceeds to benefit Jones Valley Teaching Farm. Tickets for Sunday Brunch: Pies + Casseroles, A Celebration of the Southern Oven—with Angie Mosier and Lisa Donovan.
First, third, and fourth image courtesy of Jones Valley Teaching Farm.