Forest Park preschool farm stand clears final hurdle to sell produce

After a nearly yearlong hiatus, preschoolers in Forest Park will have the chance to sell their fruits and veggies again.

The Forest Park City Council on Monday granted a conditional use permit to Little Ones Early Learning Center to sell produce they grow in their own garden along with organic produce from area farms. City code enforcement had ordered the stand to close last year because the school is located in a residential area that previously was not zoned for commercial activity.

In the virtual meeting, city council members voted unanimously to allow the school to sell the produce twice a month for 4.5 hours per day in the parking lot.

“Everybody wants healthy food for our community. I am in support of this because it is going to bring more healthy options to our community. I want to make sure the narrative is not that the city is against these things because we are not,” said councilman Hector Gutierrez.

Supporters of the farm stand called Little Ones a “beacon” to other early learning centers both in Georgia and around the country that may hope to participate in the farm to school movement. The center’s garden-based education program is nationally recognized.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered the story since city officials closed the market down due to concerns about zoning and traffic last year. After an outpouring of public support from as far away as Australia, the city council voted 4-1 in February to amend zoning laws that would allow the farm stand to exist. Acquiring the proper permitting was the final step in the process.

“We are exhausted. We are tired. It has been a year,” said Wande Okunoren-Meadows, executive director of Little Ones Early Learning Center. The effort she said, has mobilized people from all walks of life. It also made her prioritize making sure that everyone understands the importance of good, healthy foods.

The center has remained open during the coronavirus pandemic, though enrollment dropped from 170 pre-pandemic students to about 55-60 currently. Some staff hours were reduced but all staff who wanted to continue working have been retained, Okunoren-Meadows said. Despite the challenges, the school has continued growing its squash, tomatoes, okra, cucumbers and other produce.

Okunoren-Meadows said city officials had previously told them they could give away the produce for free. “Our problem with giving the food away is it does not in our view allow for people to appreciate the work of farmers,” she said. “It is more than about nutrition. It is about kids having an appreciation for the land.”

With the final hurdle cleared, Okunoren-Meadows said the school will now focus on finding the safest way to conduct its farm stand during the pandemic. They have yet to work out the logistics but Toyin Okunoren, owner and CEO of Little Ones said they will come back strong. They hope to host at least one market before the season ends.

The effort, said school officials, has been much larger than Little Ones. “It is just so refreshing that everyone came around in the end,” Okunoren said. “It is about our children first and about our community. It is about all of us.”