emory-wire

A Force of Nature

Wande Okunoren-Meadows 02C, executive director of Little Ones Learning Center, is passionate about whole foods and their effects on the children in Forest Park, Ga. She believes in helping her students get their very best start in life and says an appreciation for the soil and fresh food is the first step.

By Elizabeth Cobb Durel

 

Do not cross Wande Okunoren-Meadows 02C, executive director of Little Ones Learning Center in Forest Park, Ga., when it comes to sustainable food.

The Little Ones Learning Center, opened by Okunoren-Meadows’ mother three decades ago, focuses on healthy habits, eating whole foods, and giving kids their very best start in life. Okunoren-Meadows, part of the staff for more than 25 years, ensures that the school is hyperinvolved with the students, their families, and the surrounding community.

Just a few months ago, Little Ones Learning Center farm stand, which features food grown in the school’s garden and is run by the students, was shut down by a Forest Park zoning officer citing concerns about a lack of permits. 

"We asked for an extension," says Okunoren-Meadows. "Along with cash, we also accept EBT and double EBT, which are food stamps. We wanted to make sure that those parents who were coming could take advantage of the farm stand.”

In February 2020, after almost six months of attorney involvement, community and parent outcry, and a stamp of credibility from the National Farm to School Network, the ordinance violation was rescinded. “In the beginning, all my emails went unanswered, but I am a Scorpio and a Nigerian, so you’ve got a double dose of determination coming,” says Okunoren-Meadows.

“Our parents started calling, leaving messages. When they came to pick up their kids, I’d say, ‘Call City Hall before you go get your child.' We wanted the city to know what the farm stand meant to our community because none of them had visited. Local and elected officials are making really important decisions for this generation of kids,” says Okunoren-Meadows. “We’re just trying to do our little part.”

Little Ones Learning Center serves more than 175 children in an early childhood education program and an afterschool program. Each part of the overall curriculum and the day-to-day lessons have health and good nutrition at the heart.

It was not the path she imagined when she began her first semester at Emory. For exactly one day, Okunoren-Meadows was a first-year pre-med student, thinking she would follow in the footsteps of her physician father.

"I dropped out even before the drop/add period," says Okunoren-Meadows. "Really, it’s about happiness. I sleep really, really well at night knowing that I’m doing something for the community.”

 


What was your inspiration? Did you grow up with kind of an environmental mindset or a food mindset?

My father was a physician and my mother is a registered dietitian. So Little Ones Learning Center has always had that health aspect. But I wouldn't say it was anything extraordinary until about maybe six or seven years ago, when we just really changed our focus and looked at the children who were coming to school. We noticed that something had changed the way our kids brains are wired, maybe television or food additives, and it's not going anywhere. One of our philosophies here is that we are not going to contribute to the predicative prison pipeline, especially with our brown boys, who have a much higher rate of being suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. Since we have really worked on what they eat---putting in their bodies plant based foods, whole foods, nutritious and nutrient dense foods---everything has absolutely changed.

You’re so involved in the community on both local and the national scale….

I've served on [former Georgia] Governor Deal’s subcommittee for early education. I'll be in D.C. next week to speak to the legislative staffs of U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, and U.S. Rep. David Scott about the need to support this work that we do. They need to make us a priority and make it a priority and invest in early funding. We don't want to be insular and only benefit our kids; if we can get policies that are changed and enacted to support Georgia's kids, that's a win.

How do you encourage the students’ families to follow your lead?

Our families are everything and this includes our dads. People say, "Oh, black dads aren't involved." But our dads are here. They're involved. They come. We address fathers equally as we address the moms when a child is sick. We involve the fathers and take families to farms to get a firsthand glimpse into farming. They're able to see how eggs are handled, what a free range chicken looks like, and a lot of other things that create a deeper appreciation for the work that we do.

How do you think your time at Emory might have influenced what you do now?

Emory has always been one of those leaders in stewardship in whatever they do. I think Emory helped instill in me a sense of social responsibility. I was a double major in sociology and in anthropology---those soft sciences people think are a waste because they don't generate income. But soft sciences and having excellent professors manifested in the work of Little Ones Learning Center. There are lots of really smart people in the world who don't know how to play together, don't want to take care of one another, don't have empathy.

In just a few weeks, you’ll be a panelist on Exploring Atlanta: Emory’s Involvement in Sustainable Food Systems. What’s your thesis statement? If you could stand on that stage and let people walk away with only one thought, what would it be?

Grow food. Grow food. Grow. Grow food. Grow food.


Hear more from Okunoren-Meadows at Emory’s Involvement in Sustainable Food Systems as part of the ongoing Emory in Atlanta series. She’ll be on the panel happening Friday, March 13, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at Southface Institute, 241 Pine St. NE, Atlanta, GA 30308.

Would you like to support the Little Ones Learning Center produce stand? From 1:30 p.m.-5:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, March through November, stop by the parking lot of  993 Forest Avenue, Forest Park, GA 30297

Editor's Note: We would like to thank our staff videographer, Suban Day, for the video support, and our mini-intern, Daisy Durel, for providing photographic support.