Talking GMOs, Affordable Organic Food & Veggie-Lovin’ Kids With Michael Wall of Georgia Organics

Georgia OrganicsBoard member Dr. Carroll Johnson, a USDA agronomist, at a workshop on organic peanuts.

“Local,” “sustainable,” and “organic” aren’t just menu buzzwords. For the good people at Georgia Organics, they’re a mission statement. This nonprofit aims to connect Georgians – kids, chefs, and YOU – with the farms and food right here in our own fine state. WellATL digs deeper with Georgia Organics Director of Programs Michael Wall.

Georgia Organics does a LOT and it involves one of our favorite things: food. Give us the break down on how Atlantans might be benefitting from your hard work without even realizing it.
If you’re a parent and your elementary or middle school student suddenly comes home and says, “I love kale!” or “Gardening is super fun!” then we helped out a little there (but so did lots of other folks). And if you like to see local farms on your favorite restaurants’ menus, there’s a good chance that we talked to that chef or gave him or her a Good Food Guide so they could find a great local, sustainable, or organic farmer. If you love farmers markets, our My Market program has attracted close to 11,000 new shoppers at Georgia farmers markets, which has put close to $60,000 in farmers’ pockets, and in turn, makes sure your local farmers market is thriving.

Georgia Organics

Getting kids digging in the at Atlanta Public Schools!

Convincing kids to eat their veggies is probably the number one dinner table battle for parents. How is Georgia Organics helping out? Besides teaching the “Vrroooom! Here comes the airplane!” trick, of course.
This one is easy! We’ve seen firsthand that if kids plant a seed in a school garden, water it, watch the plant grow, and harvest it, they are much more likely to try it, whether its radishes, kale, or strawberries. Most of the kids love that experience so much that they associate the entire hands-on involvement with a certain food in a positive way. That means that they’ll eat it again and eventually ask for it at home. Also, Georgia Organics staffers have five children, all of whom have been forced to eat their veggies.

Related: We have tricks much better than the airplane “vrooom.”

Attempt No. 1
Us: “Hey kids! Want to try this salad?”
Kid: “No thanks.”

Attempt No. 2.
Us: “Hey kids, we’ll give you a sticker if you try this salad.”
Kid: “Yeah, I’ll try that salad!”

But tricks are for kids. It takes more than one try, and more than one activity to change a child’s eating habits, so farm-to-school programs connect students with fresh food on many fronts. Most folks probably think farm-to-school just entails getting kids into school gardens, and that’s a big part of many programs, but taste tests, a curriculum that integrates farming and nutrition education, and hands-on cooking activities are also hugely important.

Georgia Organics runs a mentoring program for new farmers to learn from other farmers with a few more years in their overalls. Tell a feel-good success story that’ll make us go “awwww.”

I can’t name names for the sake of privacy, but let’s call this guy Bill Gates. Bill was in IT for two decades. He was successful, and he and his wife had a great house in the ‘burbs, but Bill Gates felt like something was missing. He left his company after 16 years, became an IT contractor so he could have more control over his schedule, and applied to be a mentee in our mentoring program. He was accepted and over the next year, he built more than a dozen raised beds in his backyard, and then another dozen in his front yard. In those beds, he would eventually learn to grow just about everything you can grow in Georgia. His mentor would help him tweak his irrigation system and tell him how to deal with squash bugs, among other things. By the end of his year as a mentee, Bill Gates was selling his beautiful produce at the Lawrenceville farmers market.

Bill has grown his operation, adding chickens for eggs and meat, and even turkeys. He doesn’t have to do any IT contracting anymore. He’s a full-time farmer alongside his lovely wife, makes a good living, and has become a mentor in the same program that gave him his start. (In fact, Bill Gates has mentored more mentees than any other mentor in our program’s history.)

Some people are super freaked out about GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in our food system. Like, protesting in the streets and posting really long rants on Facebook. Are GMOs a big deal in Georgia farming? And should we be afraid of what’s on the dinner plate?

I think people are a little too freaked out about GMOs and not concerned enough about the underlying concerns of GMOs, which are pesticides. People are horrified by so-called Frankenfoods, but don’t connect the dots to what’s really going on. Pests are a problem for every type of farmer in Georgia, conventional and organic. Many genetically modified plants are designed to survive a specific pesticide, and, despite promises to the contrary from companies that produce GMO seeds, Georgia is seeing more and more pesticide use. Peer-reviewed studies show there are negative health and environmental impacts of certain pesticides. Yields aren’t getting better. Farmers are having to spend more money on pesticides than before, and pesticide resistant weeds are present in more than half the counties in Georgia. New GMO plants are coming out that will be able to withstand even more pesticides, which are supposed to wipe out even the toughest weeds. That’s what scares me – that GMOs are creating an escalation race against Mother Nature. By embracing Mother Nature’s own techniques, organic farmers can deal with pests – albeit with more work and occasionally by spraying organic pesticides – but without having to use synthetic pesticides. We’re counting calories, why not chemicals?

Americans have gotten accustomed to big, cheap meals. Yeah, we might want to do the organic thing, but it seems expensive. Tell us the best way to “go organic” and not break the bank.

Georgia Organics

We got 31 Cafeteria Staff from the Jackson County School district to tour 3 farms!

The simple answer is “Buy seasonally and locally.” Want an organic tomato in winter? It’s probably going to be grown in California or Mexico, and that’s not going to be cheap. Want affordable organic tomatoes from up the road during the summer? Go to a farmers market and shop around. One farmer may have them for $4 a tomato, but another farmer will them for $4 a pound. In talking about organic food, we have to acknowledge that the price point can be a nonstarter for some folks. But that price point has to account for a farmer’s costs, and most organic farms require more expensive types of specialized labor. Fuel, inputs, and costs of getting to market also affect prices. Also, I think Americans have gotten too accustomed to big, cheap meals. Most processed foods are subsidized in some way, which means our food isn’t being produced on a level playing field, and how un-American is that? You get what you pay for. Aren’t you worth spending an extra buck or two on food that is healing for you and the land that keeps us all fed?

Bonus Question: Y’all talk about food all day. Is it safe to say there’s a bunch of foodies working at Georgia Organics? Who makes the best lunch to swipe from the break room fridge? 

Michael Wall Georgia Organics

Michael Wall of Georgia Organics

It’s interesting because we are all into food but we’re not what you’d typically think of as foodies. We work at a nonprofit, so you’re not going to find us out and about at as many awesome farm-to-table restaurants in Atlanta as our beloved foodie crowd. That said, holy ka-moly we eat so good at the office it’s not even funny. I think we’ve all got our specialties (mine is chili), and we’re all excellent at making delicious and healthy food on a budget. That means being creative, like mixing black-eyed peas that are two days from spoiling with some sautéed garlic and kale. Deelish! I reckon, if I could swipe someone’s lunch from the fridge, it would be Administrative Assistant Anika White’s. But it’s never going to happen because she makes her lunches fresh every day and she eats every single bite of her dish. It’s really selfish of her when you think about it.