A battle over tomatoes and a tiny preschool produce stand has come to a victorious end.
The Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Georgia, had been forced by the city to shut down its small farm stand last August. But after public outcry and a six-month back and forth with area leaders, city council members voted 4-1 to amend the zoning laws to allow more farm stands in the city.
"It’s sad that it had to be play out like this, but it was worth everything," Wande Okunoren-Meadows, executive director of the preschool, tells MNN. "It took too much energy and too much time when we have real crises in the city. But it was worth the fight. The farm stand has become such a big part of who we are and it’s important to the children."
More than two dozen supporters showed up at a city council meeting this week for the vote, including parents, community members and a few students with homemade signs. Only a few people got to speak in the 10 minutes allotted for public comment.
The school will have to submit an application for a permit and, if all goes as planned, could be back to selling produce outside its doors in March. Approval wouldn't be guaranteed, but school leaders are hopeful. If it is approved, the permit would last as long as the school is in business.
Since the story broke last year, hundreds of people contacted the school or the city council and thousands posted online, sharing the story and asking what they could do.
And area leaders listened.
“The city heard from the social media justice warriors!” Okunoren-Meadows says. “The story absolutely cuts across politics, it cuts across race, it cuts across gender, it cuts across economics.”
The school received calls, emails and Facebook comments from all over the country. A woman from Australia wrote to the city council and copied the school saying, “In these current times of uncertainty, right across this world, we all need to come together with faith & optimism, so that each small project started can flourish & cause change that benefits the whole.”
An Atlanta chef stopped by the school and offered to cook with the children, showing them what to do with the fruits of their labor. Several people offered to pay a temporary monthly $50 fee to keep the farm stand going until a permanent solution could be worked out.
Appreciative of the donation offers, the school wanted a long-term solution, not a short-term fix and that’s why they continued to fight for a change in the ordinance. However, for those who want to help with the garden, donations can be made instead to the school’s non-profit Hand, Heart and Soul Project for soil, tools and other garden supplies.
“This is proof positive that ... even in the busy-ness and chaos of life, people are still touched by the simplest of stories in ordinary communities and took time out of their day to take action,” Okunoren-Meadows says. “It doesn’t take a high-profile celebrity to effect change. Your readers and followers were part of the movement who helped with that. They shared the story, commented, posted, called the center, sent us emails and more. And that’s golden.”
How the story started
At Little Ones, the young students do typical preschool things. They work on spelling and draw interesting creations, but they also get to play and learn in an amazing garden.
The garden originally started as an outdoor learning environment for kids who needed to get out in nature for a little bit.
"It was a place for children who were having hard days," Okunoren-Meadows says. "I know I go stir crazy if I'm sitting indoors for a long period of time. 'You're having a hard time inside? Let's go outside, play in the dirt and find some worms.'"
Eventually parents got involved and the garden truly bloomed. Now kids grow squash, beans, radishes, bell peppers, watermelons and all sorts of greens, while also learning how to compost. Then on the first and third Wednesday of the month, they set up a produce stand where they sold their homegrown fruits and vegetables to parents and people in the community. Farmers from the West Georgia Co-Op also brought produce to help supplement what's offered at the small stand.
The school is located in an area of Clayton County where many people can't afford fresh produce, so they offered steep discounts (two-for-one) when customers use food stamps.
But in early August, the city shut down the farm stand, saying the residential area wasn't zoned for selling produce.
'It's like shutting down a kid's lemonade stand'
The garden-to-farm-stand movement helps the kids learn about the environment and love their vegetables while also assisting the community.
"It’s more than just selling 50 cent peppers," the school posted on Facebook. "It's a wellness movement. It's connecting families and kids and food and the environment."
Okunoren-Meadows points out that the school isn't located in a food desert; she says it's more like a food swamp.
"What's available is crap. It's lots of tomatoes that look like they're on steroids. The cucumbers are humongous. When a child is looking at one of our carrots, they say, 'It's so tiny, what's wrong with it?'" she says.
"We have to tell them that what they're seeing in the store isn't normal. There's the whole education piece and teaching them to be environmentally aware. There's learning patience and being appreciative. It touches on so many things. It's about getting healthy food into the community, but so much more."
Until the city shut them down.
"Anywhere you live, you’ve got to have rules and regulations," Forest Park City Manager Angela Redding told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Otherwise, you would just have whatever."
School administrators were surprised when they were asked to close up shop.
"It's like shutting down a kid's lemonade stand," Okunoren-Meadows says. "Nobody does this. It just shouldn't happen."
How to change the rules
The kid farmers and their teachers had to move their organic fruits and veggies inside, where the lower visibility has meant a big drop in sales.
Okunoren-Meadows went to a city council meeting in early September where she and more than two dozen supporters asked leaders to amend the law while speaking about the importance of the program.
After that, the city offered to allow the school to sell its produce in a different city-owned location. But it's outside the school's neighborhood, away from the community school leaders want to serve. The school also was offered the chance to pay $50 for a "special event" permit each time it opens the farm stand.
The city argued that if it changes the ordinance, there could be a farm stand on every corner. Okunoren-Meadows highly doubts that would happen but, if it did, that would be a good thing.
She says that the school only sold about $150 worth of produce each time the stand opened. After paying school employees for their time, the stand loses money selling 50-cent apples and 50-cent tomatoes.
"We don't generate any income off it. It's a labor of love," she says.
"According to the United Way, Clayton County has the lowest child well-being index out of all the metro Atlanta counties," Okunoren-Meadows says. "So if we're trying to move the needle and figure out ways to improve well-being, I'm not saying the farm stand is the only way to do it, but Little Ones is trying to be part of the solution."
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in September 2019.