Making the Grade: Whimsical idea turns into urban farm

Tania Herbert, who heads the Urban Agriculture program at the Paideia School, instructs elementary student on how to grow produce. Contributed.
Tania Herbert, who heads the Urban Agriculture program at the Paideia School, instructs elementary student on how to grow produce. Contributed.

It started as a whimsical way to use some empty planting beds on the grounds of the Paideia School in Druid Hills. Now, five years later, what was once just a few plots of vegetables has mushroomed into a full-scale urban agriculture program that connects the curriculum and the community.

The idea to cultivate the beds came to then-Paideia mom Tania Herbert, who eyed the spot near the elementary school classrooms and saw a way for the youngest kids to have some outdoor fun. But it’s now become a school-wide program for Paideia’s 900 students that taps into several areas of study and offers hands-on learning experiences.

“I soon realized that high schoolers wouldn’t be engaged in something designed for little children, so we built a program that now involves every grade level,” said Herbert, now the director of the urban agriculture program. “We’re also certified naturally grown and have students who trained to be certifiers themselves.”

Herbert worked with the school’s science teachers to create a class centered on nutrition and eating. “We feature a different vegetable each fall, and last year it was beets. We talked about the nutrients in them, how to use them, the different kinds of beets, how to grow and harvest them. I also do a cooking class with a taste test that’s centered around that vegetable.”

The program has expanded beyond the initial beds on the Paideia campus. Four nearby families have offered parts of their yards for cultivation. In addition to produce, one yard features a chicken coop; another has a greenhouse.

“We now have four yards within two blocks,” said Herbert. “We’re very respectful of the neighborhood and don’t take a lot of kids into the yards. But I have some who work with me and are part of the after-school urban farm club who plant and harvest, and then cook what we grow. The kids run the chicken coop that generates about a dozen organic eggs a day. And we just started raising ducklings.”

The chickens have become the subject of life-cycle studies for the younger students, while high schoolers have vaccinated the creatures in the immunology lab. The AP biology students humanely slaughtered them and learned how to make chicken broth and soup.

While much of the produce is consumed at the school, there’s still an abundant harvest every year. The bumper crops inspired Herbert to create a community outreach program. Students have served soup at local food kitchens and frozen batches of butternut squash soup that were delivered area food pantries and shelters. Senior Virginia Davis, who has been part of the farming initiative for six years, worked on a distribution model to get more of the school’s food into the community.

“I got started working with the farm because I liked picking and eating all the food – our strawberries are the best,” said the Buckhead resident. “But I’m also interested in environmental activism. As the farm has gotten bigger, we’ve been able to have more partners, and I’ve been working with Project Open Hand and Urban Recipe (a food co-op in Grant Park) to get our produce to the different demographics that can use it.”

The connection to the community is the most valuable lesson of the program, said Herbert. “I really want them to see where their food comes from, but I also want them to see that our food goes to people who can’t afford it.”