It never occurred to Denise “Denny” Hymel to count the number of volunteer hours she racks up teaching children about agriculture at her Fast Food Farm in Gramercy, La., until she was asked that question for a grant application. The number was staggering. More often than not, it was well more than a full-time job. This surprised exactly zero people who know the seemingly inexhaustible force that is Ms. Denny.

“She’s an extreme member of our community when it comes to outreach, education and volunteer work,” says Becky Louque, St. James Parish school principal.  “She’s the Energizer Bunny. She runs circles around us,” adds Felix Landry, St. James Parish school agriscience teacher. Both have seen her spark the light of curiosity in year after year of students
as they explore the labor of love that is the learning farm she’s spent 20 years building from scratch in the corner of one of her family farm fields.

Ms. Denny, as she’s known by most, is one of many generations-deep sugar cane farmers working the land between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

Denny’s front window looks out on a Mississippi River levee. Towering ships lumber past, headed to Baton Rouge to collect a bounty of grains from barges to deliver across the globe.

Though their region is a power house for agricultural production and transport, Denny felt a disconnect between area children and the source of the food on their plates. A visit to a learning farm in California struck a chord with her and she soon began her own journey creating Fast Food Farm.

Fourth graders from Sacred Heart School in Baton Rouge make terrariums.

The idea was to make a very visual and hands-on environment for young children to learn about their food. She figured a fast food theme would be easily relatable.

She spent two years planning, curriculum building and laying the groundwork for the farm. Her family donated 2.5 acres to the cause and she began to build.

“We started with simple garden plots,” she says. She and her son spent evenings tilling the ground into shapes of kid-friendly foods, like hamburgers, and planting the shapes to match food ingredients.

On top and bottom of the hamburger shape were wheat, a cow cutout represented a beef patty, and rows of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions threaded the middle. “We made a hamburger, hot dog, French fries and a taco and added characters to make it fun for the little ones, like Mr. H’s
Hotdog Hut,” Denny says.

Her years of experience volunteering with Ag In The Classroom and close ties with the school district and local industry came in handy. Soon kids were flooding the farm for ag days. They would plant seeds, grind wheat into flour, churn milk into butter and so much more. Like sugarcane in the adjoining field, the farm grew.

Today she has the garden plots, a poultry house, shelters, and a building with a kitchen, bathrooms, and workspace for learning. She hosts thousands of children on the farm each year for just a nominal fee to cover costs. Her larger field days can number 900 students and 32 activity stations.

They build soil sundaes with pudding and cookie crumbles, melt beeswax to make lip balm,  explore scents in the herb garden, feed the chickens and more.

Ms. Denny volunteers on the local, state and national levels through Farm Bureau, Ag in the Classroom and more. She’s constantly on the go to the benefit of many far and wide.

“They take little quizzes and play physical games. All modes of learning are in play: auditory, visual, kinesthetic, taste, smell, everything. The kids talk about it for weeks after a visit,” Louque says.

Ms. Denny taps local 4-H and FFA clubs for volunteers.

“It’s the greatest thing to watch the older kids being peer teachers. We may have adults that get them started, but the kids do the teaching and the younger kids really connect with them,” Denny says.

Landry’s ag science students help with general work and special projects on the farm. It’s a win-win. When the farm gets a grant, materials and tools are paid for, and Landry’s students get hands-on experiences ranging from building a small barn to setting up hydroponics systems.

They also help harvest crops and deliver vegetables and eggs to St. Vincent De Paul for the needy.

“They learn about work ethic and see a great example of giving back to the community,” he says.

Ms. Denny is treasured by many.

“There is no comparison for Ms. Denny and her love and passion for children in the community. She will drop anything to come help you,” Louque says.

When Ms. Denny heard Louque’s students started a school garden after visiting the farm, she called to offer to help.

“I felt early on I was making a difference in these children’s lives. My passion and drive only grew as I watched kids and teachers respond to the hands-on learning,” Ms. Denny says. “They’re not the same out here as they are in the classroom. We have a lot of fun.”

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