Correction: A previous version of this story included the incorrect city council vote tally. The council voted 4-1 to amend its zoning law.
A day care took on city hall and demonstrated that little people — seriously little people — can win.
The Forest Park City Council voted Monday night to amend its zoning law to allow farm stands in more areas.
“Oh my god, we are so overjoyed,” said Wande Okunoren-Meadows, the executive director of Little Ones Early Learning Center.
Until last fall, the center had been selling fruits and vegetables raised by her preschoolers, along with organic produce from area farms. Then, concerned about traffic and the potential for copycat sales, the city shut them down. The school is in a residential area that wasn’t zoned for such sales.
"Anywhere you live, you've got to have rules and regulations," then-City Manager Angela Redding told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall. "Otherwise, you would just have whatever."
That didn’t play well on social media, earning rebukes from fresh foodies far and wide, on both sides of the partisan divide.
The Michelle Obama Fan Club on Facebook posted about it (she was into healthy food for kids), as did the Republican agriculture commissioner for Texas, Sid Miller, who had this reaction on Facebook: "More politicians who just don't get it! #Sad #Stupid #Shameful."
>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Preschool growing fruits and veggies ordered by city to stop sales
Okunoren-Meadows heard from supporters as far away as Australia. She asked them to flood officials’ phone lines, “picking at them and picking at them,” as she put it.
A couple dozen supporters showed up Monday night, including representatives from a legal clinic and an organic food group, plus parents and children. Few got to speak in the 10 minutes they were allotted, but Okunoren-Meadows said the showing may have swayed one council member who entered the building undecided but cast her lot with the majority in the 4-1 vote.
Getting parents time to speak has been a frustration. So many showed up at a prior hearing that officials asked that just one represent them all. The parents, who’d taken time off from work, refused. Children were there, too.
“I love that it comes hand-picked from their very own garden,” one girl then told council members, explaining that her mom shopped for the family there. “I’m dealing with asthma and the fresh fruits and vegetables have helped me.”
For Okunoren-Meadows, a noted leader in the farm to early care and education movement, this was never about business. She said she generally lost money. Her main goal: teach her students and their parents how to eat well, and provide wholesome food for the community.
When it appeared she was making no headway with the city, Okunoren-Meadows hired a lawyer.
It’s been a long slog since then — so long that one sympathetic council member had to stand for reelection and lost, and Redding lost her job as city manager, both apparently over other issues.
Then, earlier this month, Little Ones got a promising vote out of a city planning commission meeting. The commission recommended changing the law to allow farm stands as a “conditional use,” which is zoning parlance for “maybe we will let you.”
Okunoren-Meadows had thought things were going against her based on their questions: they worried about parking, asked why the produce she sourced off site couldn’t come from farms within the city and wondered why Little Ones needed a farm stand when there is a state farmers market in the city.
She told the AJC afterward that she had minimal sales, mostly to parents who were already parking there or to neighbors who walked up and that she is in a high-poverty neighborhood where many lack cars and cannot get to the farmers market. And, she said, where would one find a farm in Forest Park?
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State Rep. Valencia Stovall, D-Ellenwood, represents an area where many of the Little Ones parents live and described it is a “food desert.”
She considered introducing legislation to allow day cares to operate farm stands, but said cities, due to the state constitution, wouldn’t be subject to it.
Permitting a day care farm stand in Forest Park would be a “win-win for our community because we don’t have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables,” Stovall said.
Some communities were already open to this sort of thing. Atlanta, for instance, permits “market gardens” to sell site-grown produce in residential areas in some circumstances, and schools qualify.
Now that Forest Park has approved the change, Little Ones must apply for a permit to sell produce. If granted, it would apply for the duration of Little Ones’ time on the property. Little Ones lawyer, Michelle Namer, said there is a good chance the day care will be able to resume food sales, but a permit is not guaranteed.
“You’re going to get it unless there’s an extenuating circumstance,” Namer said. “Of course, with local government there’s always that political aspect.”
Last week, City Councilman Allan Mears, an early supporter of the school, said the city had concerns about everything from food safety to traffic safety, especially if other people wanted to open farm stands once the law permitted it for Little Ones.
“When you do for one, you’ve got to do for the rest of them,” he said. “The main thing was safety of the kids and safety of the city.”
Mears was optimistic of passage and voted with the majority.
In the grand scheme of things it’s a little victory, affecting one farm stand in a small city, but Okunoren-Meadows said it’s a big lesson for her students.
“I hope people understand that they don’t have to give up,” she said. “No matter what forces are out there, keep pressing.”