Hemelt: Denise Hymel grows student farm into success

Published 12:03 am Saturday, April 8, 2017

Denise Hymel was born and raised on a produce farm in St. James Parish.

The afternoons and weekends spent working the farm as a child stayed with her. The experience also made it easier to embrace the lifestyle as an adult when she married a sugarcane farmer with working farmland in St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes.

That lifetime commitment to the land also spurred a passion in Denise that burns to this day and inspired a grassroots teaching effort that connects thousands of neighborhood children to the farms that create the food we all eat each day.

“I feel we, as farmers, cannot do enough to bring about that awareness of how important agriculture is in our lives,” Denise told me this week. “It’s our link to life. I need to start by teaching these kids when they are little, and they can go home and teach their parents.”

The internal mission statement led to Fast Food Farm’s launch in 2001. The nonprofit farm exists on 2.5 acres of land in Gramercy and provides a creative tool for schools, organizations and community members to educate youth and adults about the importance of agriculture and how it connects with the origin of our favorite fast foods.

Supported almost instantly by St. James Parish Public Schools and enhanced with a growing number of industry partners, the working farm has become an educational mainstay for area children.

According to Denise, she has even gotten to the point where some of her first students have come back with their own children.

“The reward is when the kids come here and I see the excitement in them,” she said. “I see what they are gaining and hear from teachers who said, ‘this is not the same student that is in the classroom.’ They are so into what we do here. They are so a part of this. I want these kids to take ownership of this little farm. I want them to feel like it is theirs.”

Part of that is connecting the operation’s process to the students, who actually farm the land and eat the food that is raised.

Students and volunteers have also embraced the farm’s service aspect, which includes food grown for the needy. Denise said a special segment of the farm is dedicated to provide food for Saint Vincent de Paul’s bi-monthly food basket giveaways.

The Fast Food Farm received an amazing burst of life approximately five years ago when it was awarded a $90,000 grant through Mosaic, which lead to electricity and construction of an on-site building for a Kids Kitchen classroom setting, storage space and a small office for Denise.

“I felt like I was in heaven when I received that grant,” Denise said.

The Fast Food Farm really gets hopping for St. James Parish Ag. Day, scheduled for April 19.

Denise said more than 1,300 students will attend and 34 activity centers are planned.

Active education projects include students and volunteers turning all farm plots into raised beds, running irrigation, building a tractor shed and learning how to drive tractors.

Plots are physically shaped like a hot dog, hamburger, box of fries or taco and raise the very items needed to create those foods.

Students learn the complex system food goes through to get to the grocery store or restaurant, working themselves to turn tomatoes into salsa or cucumbers into pickles.

“The kids, in doing all of this, gain greater compassion for the land,” Denise said. “You gain compassion for others, for yourself and become a better person.”

Stephen Hemelt is publisher and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.