October is “National Farm to School Month,” but efforts to link West Virginia school food programs and local farmers have been in full swing for the past year, and proponents are hailing the early results.
West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus R. Douglass said the initiative has wide-ranging benefits.
“The obvious benefit is fresher, tastier and more-nutritious food for students that will help them excel in the classroom,” said Commissioner Douglass. “But they also have the opportunity to learn directly about agriculture and where their food comes from. Plus, this program provides tremendous opportunities for West Virginia farmers to tap into a huge market right here in West Virginia.”
He also noted the cooperative nature of the Farm to School Program.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidizes meal programs and provides commodity foods to states, the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) sets nutrition standards for school meals and oversees the state program, and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) warehouses and delivers foods to counties, as well as helping farmers become certified under USDA’s voluntary Good Handling Practices/Good Agricultural Practices (GHP/GAP) audit program.
The WVDA also provided free delivery of fresh, West Virginia Grown apples to 145 elementary and intermediate schools – along with agriculture-based lesson plans – through the USDA’s fresh fruit and vegetable program to kick off Farm to School Month.
But specific menu and food sourcing decisions are made at the local level, and that’s where the Farm to School philosophy has begun to take hold according to new WVDA Farm to School Coordinator Andrew Pense.
Local beef and produce has been served in Fayette County, Tucker County cafeterias are cooking from scratch, Pocahontas County students planted and picked beans that fed the school for two days, and Cabell County bought four truckloads of corn that were shucked and prepared by four cooks.
In Mason County, WVU Extension Agent Rodney Walbrown spearheaded a project in which the entire county had all-local meals one day. The school system purchased five cows at the Mason County Fair, which produced “the best hamburgers the kids had ever tasted,” said Walbrown. In addition, he scoured the county for every potato he could find – well over a ton for the one-day event.
“I did it just to prove that it could be done,” he told a group of about 45 school food personnel and farmers at a Farm to School meeting organized by Putnam County Extension Agent Chuck Talbott. He said Putnam County spends $2 million a year on school meals – neighboring Cabell County spends $6 million – and he implored farmers to get involved and keep some of those dollars here.
The Farm to School Program is gaining steam in West Virginia at a time when secondary agriculture programs are seeing a surge in student interest. According to Nathan Taylor, Coordinator with the WVDE’s Office of Career and Technical Instruction, FFA membership this year will top 5,000 for the first time in recent memory. A new agriculture program has come online with the opening of the new high school in Buffalo and existing chapters are expanding program offerings. Some are working cooperatively with ProStart – a two-year national culinary education program in place in some schools in West Virginia – to grow and prepare food for fellow students.
At Hampshire High School, a wide range of vo-ag classes are offered throughout the school day. Out of 1,200 total students at the school, nearly half are enrolled in at least one agriculture class. The school is planning to build a dedicated veterinary laboratory and kennels so that students can have first-hand experience working as kennel managers and veterinary technicians. Students produced hundreds of pounds of vegetables and melons for the school salad bar, and are also developing a line of purebred Berkshire hogs that instructor Isaac Lewis hopes to one day market locally and serve in the school.
An obvious limitation to Farm to School in West Virginia is the growing season. However, a host of state and federal agencies have been studying, touting and even helping to fund “high tunnels,” which are basically unheated greenhouses. West Virginia may never grow its own oranges, but the structures can cost-effectively extend the growing season for many types of produce for a month in both the spring and fall. And although West Virginia produces approximately 200,000 cattle a year, there currently is limited local meat-processing capability.
Commissioner Douglass – set to retire from public service in January after 11 terms as West Virginia’s Commissioner of Agriculture – isn’t worried about any of that, though. “When I was growing up, we were self-sufficient. Just about everything we had was grown and processed locally, except for coffee and sugar, and we’d trade eggs or produce for them. I’m sure we could do that again,” said Commissioner Douglass.
The West Virginia Department of Agriculture protects plant, animal and human health through a variety of scientific, regulatory and consumer protection programs, as mandated by state law. The Commissioner of Agriculture is one of six statewide elected officials in West Virginia. For more information, visit www.wvagriculture.org.
“The Basis of All Wealth is Agriculture.”