Germaine Appel (left), the school’s garden educator, and teacher Danielle Brown help kids plant seeds in the school garden on Sept. 11, 2019. Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park is one of 18 state farm to school demonstration projects: Students grow and harvest food, and the school sells it to their parents and to the surrounding neighborhood. However, the little school can no longer sell its produce, after the city said it violated local codes. The property isn’t zoned for farm stands. BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

New support in Forest Park preschool’s farm stand fight

The preschool produce impasse in Forest Park may reach a negotiated settlement after one local councilman visited the school whose farm stand was shut down by the city.

“I went over there to reassure the ladies,” Forest Park Councilman Allan Mears said Tuesday. “They’ve got a nice setup over there.”

Mears doesn’t represent that part of the city in Clayton County, but figured he ought to pay a visit to Little Ones Learning Center to see what the school was all about after a code enforcement officer shut down the produce sales.

Little Ones is nationally known for its organic garden, and advocates across the state and the country have watched as operator Wande Okunoren-Meadows pushed the farm-to-table philosophy further with a semimonthly farm stand. She sold what her kids grew but didn’t eat, and supplemented the sales with produce from nearby farms.

Germaine Appel (center), the garden educator at Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, during a session with kids in the school garden on Sept. 11, 2019. Jonika Swayne, the mother of Ajah (far left), 4, said her daughter brought home peppermint, which they placed in water to propagate. Little Ones is one of 18 state farm to school demonstration projects: Students grow and harvest food, and the school sells it to their parents and to the surrounding neighborhood. However, the little school can no longer sell its produce, after the city said it violated local codes. The property isn’t zoned for farm stands.
Photo: BOB ANDRES / ROBERT.ANDRES@AJC.COM

Her intent isn’t to turn a profit — she said she mostly breaks even — but to give residents in the surrounding neighborhood access to organic fruits and vegetables. Food stamp recipients got a discount.

The sales in front of the school had been going on for over a year, when the city shut it down this summer. It turns out the school is in a residential area that isn’t zoned for farm stands, and parked cars were lining the street.

The city manager has said the rules are in place for safety, and that the school could apply for a permit for each sales date. But it would cost $50 per event, which Okunoren-Meadows said she can’t afford, since that’s about a third of her typical revenue from the stand sales. She wants the law changed so other preschools can follow her lead.

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Mears, who grew up in farm country, said the city does need to be careful about changing the laws in order to protect against “bait and switch” exploits. He gave an example of people who buy bulk from a farmer’s market then sell on the roadside claiming their produce is “homegrown.” 

Forest Park Councilman Allan Mears
Photo: City of Forest Park

He said, however, that Little Ones is doing a service to the children by teaching them about fruits and vegetables and that he is not bothered by the idea of selling produce from nearby farms. It would be “crazy” to stop the preschool from these activities, he said.

“I think it can be worked out, but we’ve got people on both sides that haven’t communicated like they should,” he added. “It’s just a matter of sitting down and talking.”

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Okunoren-Meadows was encouraged by Mears’ visit and by a call of support she said she got from another council member (that person couldn’t be reached for comment). 

She doesn’t know how deeply that support runs, though. She thinks the city-permitting process is overkill for her farmstand, which typically drew two or three dozen customers, most of them parents. The process is designed to determine whether a police presence and portable toilets are necessary for public safety.

“I don't need police presence at a farm stand,” she said in a text message Tuesday. “That sounds plain silly.”

Okunoren-Meadows didn’t attend a city council meeting Monday night because her school’s issue was not on the agenda, but she said she hasn’t given up. She said she hopes to get her issue onto a future meeting agenda.

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