Waynesboro, Ga. – There’s a sack of grits on Donna Martin’s desk, and not the instant, stripped down, processed kind.
These are “old timey grown and milled, sifted white grits” from just down the road in Statesboro, according to the packaging.
“These are the only grits we serve because they have to be whole grain,” Martin said. “Our kids love them.”
We are in the South, of course, and folks here take their grits seriously. Martin, the school nutrition director for Burke County, does too.
On this day, sitting at her desk inside the Burke County Public Schools central office, in between the constant pings of incoming emails and phone calls from a CNN producer, Martin is talking about sending grits to Washington, D.C.
She wants to prove to newly-tapped U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, that kids will, in fact, eat these whole grain grits.
It is not an idle threat, if you know Martin at all.
Prior to testifying before members of Congress in the summer of 2015 in support of the new school nutrition standards, Martin delivered some colorful gifts to the desks of each of the committee members: fresh Georgia peaches and blueberries.
“And I said to them ‘Tell me you would not eat that,’ ” Martin recalled, savoring the exchange. “ ‘That’s what we serve in our lunchroom, and tell me you want to stop requiring these kids to pick up a fruit or vegetable on their trays.’ ”
She called the performance “a home run,” this relatively unknown school nutrition director from Waynesboro, Ga., taking a grilling from Congress but not backing down or apologizing in what has become a hotly-debated issue.
Reared in Miami, Martin is fully Southern in both her hospitality and grit.
Here, in this far flung pocket of east Georgia, amid heartbreaking poverty, Martin has fashioned a school nutrition program that is the envy of the entire country, even warranting a nationally-televised segment on CBS and a visit from the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
“We’ve got this diamond of an employee down here in basically this rural school system,” said Chris Henry, Burke County’s administrative liaison to the superintendent. “I’m not sure a lot of people know what we have – I think the kids know – but we’ve got a diamond down here, no doubt about it.”
Martin was the first member of her family to attend college. She received her bachelor’s degree in dietetics from FACS in 1975 and has spent the last 40 years in Georgia, including a 10-year stint as the Richmond County school nutrition director, before taking her current job in 1999.
She began her career as a dietitian at the university hospital in Augusta, but was soon drawn to school nutrition.
“What attracts me to school nutrition is the prevention aspect,” she said. “And I think with the (rising) healthcare costs, our only hope is to do prevention. We are about to break the back of government on healthcare costs, and it’s heart disease, diabetes, renal disease, and all of that is lifestyle-related.”
In Burke County, Martin oversees a staff of 60 employees who serve meals to more than 4,000 students in five schools. Among them are 68 pre-K students, the youngest of them only eight weeks old.
What the students eat has become the subject of national attention. You won’t find processed chicken nuggets and greasy pizza.
Burke County’s students eat fresh fruits and vegetables sourced from local farmers, from white acre peas to squash casserole, from tomato cucumber salad to spaghetti and meat sauce made from beef that comes from nearby Washington, Ga.
School menus list the source of the food: eggs from Statesboro, hydroponic lettuce from Sardis, tomatoes from the Wagon Barn Market just down the street.
The ambitious farm-to-school program began about a decade ago when a local farmer approached the school looking to sell off a surplus of watermelons.
“I thought, ‘Are you kidding? Our kids would love watermelons!” Martin said.
Before long, Martin had farmers practically begging to sell their crops, from tomatoes to okra to collards.
“I told them there’s not an item y’all grow that we couldn’t use in large quantities,” Martin said.
Demand for fruits and vegetables became so great that Martin arranged a weekly farmers’ market, the first of its kind in the community. Fruit and vegetable consumption has doubled since the farm to school program launched, Martin said, and students have embraced the changes.
“What you envision, the worst-case scenario where kids walk out in protest, we didn’t have anything like that,” Henry said. “The changes were so well thought out and the quality of the food so good and explanations so clear. We didn’t go from steak to cardboard. The food got better.”
Burke County, the second largest county in Georgia at 835 square miles, is a “total food desert,” Martin said.
Poverty is rampant, and the school system operates under the Community Eligibility Program, a federal program that allows districts in low-income areas to serve meals at no cost.
Because of Martin’s vision, students in the system won’t go hungry, even after the final bell rings.
Today, 15 buses deliver healthy meals to students even in the far reaches of the county as part of Martin’s summer feeding program, which has since been replicated in school districts across the country.
“I just thought, ‘We’ve got to do something to help these kids,’ and I have the resources to do it,” Martin said. “We didn’t know if it would work, but we were willing to try. Oh my gosh, has it worked! We were the first school district in the U.S. to do that because I have a staff that will go to the ends of the earth to make it all happen. And we all see the benefits of it.”
Earlier this year, Martin was voted president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the first school nutrition director to serve in the role, another testament to her vision and national impact.
She is asked if she ever gets discouraged, because the thought seems so foreign in light of the passion that radiates from her when she talks.
It happens, she said. But then, she tells you a story.
She was out visiting one of her schools recently. An assistant principal approached, and Martin braced herself.
“I thought, ‘Here it comes, they want fried chicken back on the menu,’ ” Martin said. “He said, ‘When you started all this stuff, I was not a believer. I was negative. I wouldn’t eat the meals and I thought it was all a waste of time.’ ”
Martin had heard it before, but the man continued.
“But he said ‘Oh my gosh, I have seen the change in these kids,’ ” Martin said.
“ ‘There’s been a change in their behavior eating this healthy food. And it has changed how I eat, too. I’m eating organic and going to farmers’ markets. I just want to thank you.’ ”
“When I get discouraged,” she said, “those are the kinds of stories I play in my head. It takes time and not everybody is going to be on board, but I just think it’s worth it in the end.”
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