Farm to school: Hamilton County schools teaching students about sourcing local produce

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Cathy Jennings, left, and Mark Burnett look over a box of Golden Delicious apples at Oren Wooden's Apple House in Pikeville, Tenn. on Sunday, September 11, 2022.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Cathy Jennings, left, and Mark Burnett look over a box of Golden Delicious apples at Oren Wooden's Apple House in Pikeville, Tenn. on Sunday, September 11, 2022.

A class of fourth graders at Battle Academy watched as their teacher secured an apple to the prongs of an old-fashioned peeler and began turning the handle. A few gasped while the skin spiraled to the floor, but cheers and "wows" erupted when the teacher removed the apple, revealing a perfect apple Slinky.

Tarah Kemp, culinary integration specialist at Battle Academy, was teaching students how to make French apple tarte Tatin in response to the French influence on America prior to the American Revolution.

But the apples she was using weren't purchased from the grocery store -- they were sourced locally.

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They came from Oren Wooden's Apple House in Pikeville, Tennessee, as part of an initiative to introduce Hamilton County students to the farm-to-table process.

"We want kids to know where their apples come from. We want them to know where their milk comes from, not the grocery store," Cathy Jennings, coordinator of the district's Coordinated School Health program, said in an interview.

"It's a very small program, but even something small starts to make a difference," Jennings said. "I think my goal has just been to try to introduce kids to more healthy fruits and vegetables. And boy, if we can work with local partners, why not?"

Jennings usually spends a few hours each weekend driving to farms, picking up produce and delivering it to schools. In addition to Oren Wooden's orchard, she's worked with Smith Perry Berries in Ooltewah to source strawberries and pumpkins, and Mountain Sun Farm in Mentone, Alabama, for organic sweet potatoes.

Coordinated School Health is a state-funded program developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote healthy school environments and combat childhood obesity. According to state data, 42% of Hamilton County students are overweight or obese.

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The district receives $180,000 for the program, and about $5,000 of that is used to purchase farm-fresh produce, Jennings said.

Oren Wooden's Apple House has been participating in the program for the past five years.

"We always like to do things like this," Cain Burnett, manager at Oren Wooden's, said in an interview. "It makes fruits and vegetables so much more accessible to school kids. It makes you feel good to be able to partner with someone who's doing that."

Burnett is the grandson of the late Oren Wooden, the orchard's namesake. His family grows more than 25 varieties of apples on 150 acres. They estimate that July-November, the months they are operational, they sell an average of 35,000 bushels.

When Jennings stops by, she takes around 30 bushels -- each containing roughly 120 apples -- back to Hamilton County schools. This happens about four or five times each fall before the season ends.

Jennings said she always tries to talk to students about the farmers who grew the food. This year, she had posters made with Oren Wooden's picture.

"We'll bring these (posters) in the cafeteria when we're serving apples this week so that the kids can get a perspective on this is the man who started the apple farm, the apple that you're eating today," Jennings said.

Jennings also hands apples out during fall and Halloween festivities, so the children have a healthy alternative to candy.

"I also try to always include a little card that explains to the parents how to keep the apples from browning," Jennings said. "And we'll also do a lot of aftercare programs. We have a lot of kids in aftercare every day. And that's a great opportunity to get fruits and vegetables into their hands and talk to them about nutrition and also to do family outreach."

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While many of the apples are served directly through a school's cafeteria and through events Jennings attends, others are used in culinary classes, such as the one at Battle Academy.

Kemp found ways to use the apples in dishes the children could make that aligned with their studies.

"It's more integrated in the standards of what they're learning in their classes," Kemp said. "They've been learning about the French and Indian War, and so that's a way of taking it to the next level."

Some types of apples don't always do well with students, Jennings said.

"For some reason, kids won't eat Goldens," she said. "But they're always requesting Granny Smiths."

But this year, she has a plan to convert more children to Golden Delicious apples by slipping in a new apple variety called Gold Rush, a cousin of the Golden Delicious.

"I like to try to introduce the kids to different types and different varieties," Jennings said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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