At Jones Valley Teaching Farm in downtown Birmingham, chickens scratch and strut in their coop as rush hour traffic rumbles down U.S. 31 nearby. Young persimmon trees blossom at the edge of the same field where the South's best chefs cook a fund-raising dinner at the end of every summer. It's all too easy to become entranced by the ragged beauty of this urban-pastoral scene, but there's a more meaningful mission under-foot here on this once-vacant lot, one hinted at by local elementary school students digging in the dirt today.
"Students learn best by doing," says Grant Brigham, the farm's executive director. "The goal is to get students to eat more fruits and vegetables. The evidence says it must happen at a young age. Students don't need to be told how or what to do. They need to taste it, feel it, and experience it."
The South's most dynamic urban farm is investing in one of the South's most beleaguered cities by empowering thousands of young students to change their lives. With vegetables. Grant's team takes the farm's curriculum into a handful of Birmingham City Schools through Good School Food, a two-year-old flagship program composed of student-run farmers' markets, grow-your-own tutorials, and cooking classes at Southern Living and sister magazine Cooking Light. The early results show promise. Four out of every five families who learned how to cook healthy dinners in our test kitchens say they now cook more as a family. The farm's assessments reveal that students who participate in these programs are improving in subjects like math and science and learning skills like critical thinking and creativity. The work forecasts a brighter future for Birmingham. Jones Valley is a lot like those persimmon trees: If you patiently plant, cultivate, and prune, a community will bear fruit for years to come.