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W.Va.'s farmers feeding schools

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- During the first week of October, seven schools in Kanawha County will serve their students a lunch of beef sliders, corn on the cob, potato wedges and cherry or peach crisp, made entirely with West Virginia produce and meat.

On Friday, Preston High School served its students a lunch of West Virginia ground beef, broccoli and cantaloupe. West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick promoted the lunch in Kingwood as the kickoff of a statewide "farm-to-school" program, but similar local-food programs have been going on throughout the state for several years.

Tucker County High School recently completed work on a 2,160-square-foot greenhouse, and is building a high tunnel -- basically an unheated greenhouse -- of the same size.

The project was funded by a grant from the state Department of Natural Resources and also has been supported by the Department of Education and the Tucker Community Foundation.

Agriculture students from the school's vocational program work the greenhouse, which produced 40,000 plants this year. Biology, chemistry and environmental science classes help out, as well. In the spring, the school acts as a nursery, selling flower and vegetable seedlings to the community.

Then, in the summer, agriculture students take seedlings to gardens -- either at their homes or on land donated by a school board member -- and grow the vegetables to harvest. These "supervised agricultural experiences" are part of the students' required curriculum. All summer the students sell their produce to local farmers markets. Now that school is back in session, they're selling the vegetables back to the school.

"Every day since the first week of school, there's been fresh vegetables [in the cafeteria] from our students," said Assistant Principal Jr Helmick. "You can't get much fresher than that."

The school chef is now working with students to process and can excess produce that will be served in the cafeteria over the winter.

Last school year, West Virginia farms sold nearly $400,000 in products and produce to schools. More than 30 of the state's 55 counties participated, buying at least some of their food from local producers.

Granted, that $400,000 is a veritable drop in the bucket when compared to the nearly $100 million state schools spend on food annually, but the local share is growing, providing fresher, more nutritious food for students and giving a consistent customer base to local farmers.

Kanawha County schools get some local products year-round, but this time of year, when fields and markets are flush with vegetables, they get about 25 percent of their food from local producers, county food services director Diane Miller said.

"We're taking it one step at a time, but I have six or seven local farmers that we're purchasing from," Miller said of the county's program, which started in 2011.

Miller buys eggs from a farm in Milton; English cucumbers, romaine lettuce and tomatoes from Gritt's Farm in Buffalo; squash, radishes and Brussels sprouts from Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave; lettuce from the Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action greenhouse near Dunbar; and peaches and apples from Kilmer's Farm in Inwood.

Farmers get less money selling in bulk to schools than they do at retail farmers markets, but schools offset that with other benefits.

"Obviously, we get a better price from the farmers market than we do from the schools," said Dale Hawkins of Fish Hawk Acres, "but it's a lot more costly to staff a farmers market, and we can sell a lot more to the schools."

Fish Hawk Acres is one of several farm cooperatives around the state in which smaller farmers band together to sell their produce as a group. Hawkins represents 14 growers, mostly in Lewis and Upshur counties, who sell to school districts in six counties.

Miller works with JL Foods of South Charleston, which helps the school system coordinate with the farmers and the cooperatives.

"Diane and I have gotten together and we've pretty much made a list of things that we have available locally," said Jim LeFew of JL Foods. "We send it out to the school cooks so they're not double ordering from U.S. Foods."

And its not just vegetables -- LeFew also supplies the schools with bread made from West Virginia wheat, salsa made from local tomatoes and locally made whole-wheat muffins.

"It started with some green peppers and some eggs, and we've grown because I say, 'Diane, this is available,' and she says, 'OK, let's try it,'" LeFew said. "We'll try some products in the summer and, if they work, we'll slip them in during the school year."

Getting a streamlined system of purchasing between farmers and schools will be crucial for farm-to-school programs to continue to grow.

"Food service directors need to have a common source of contact to obtain product and work with farmers," said Bekki Leigh, a farm-to-school coordinator for the state's Office of Child Nutrition. "It's just not effective to have 40 different farmers contacting directors to sell produce."

To that end, West Virginia soon will have 10 AmeriCorps volunteers working with school food service directors to help establish and coordinate those lines of sale, Leigh said.

While farm-to-school will require coordination in order to grow, that's no different from any other outlet that farms might sell to. In fact, because schools are so large and, let's face it, have a captive audience, they can be more flexible than other buyers, said Tom McConnell who runs the West Virginia Small Farm Center, an extension of West Virginia University.

"If you have one day's worth of cauliflower, you can work with the schools and sell it to them and say, 'Thanks, see you next year,'" McConnell said. "You can't work that way with a grocery store or a restaurant."

McConnell said farm-to-school programs initially provide a customer base for farmers, but also can help encourage students to go into farming.

"We don't have enough farmers, enough producers, enough folks that trust the fact that you can remain on a farm and make enough money," McConnell said. "The school system starts out as a market and then, assuming its role in education, it shows people how to take advantage of this."

The program in Tucker County, although still young, appears to bear this out.

It started three years ago with 21 agriculture students and now has more than doubled, to 50 students.

"The greenhouse is a great recruiting tool," said Terry Hauser, agriculture science teacher at the high school. "We teach them how to grow them, and we give them an avenue to sell."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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