West Virginia school systems spend about $100 million each year feeding students, according to the Agriculture Department. Last year, about $350,000 of that was spent on local products, a huge improvement over years past, but still a very small percentage.
As Wednesday's farm-to-school event showed, schools, parents and children are keen on the idea of locally raised food. However, because of the lack of availability, children are still faced largely with a diet of packaged foods shipped from other areas.
Because the state produces nearly $500 million in agricultural goods each year, sales to school systems could represent a major windfall for farmers, the department noted.
"We want to bring those farmers along and get them to produce what is needed by county school systems and try to basically coordinate the supply and the demand," Davidson said. "So we can have farmers producing what the schools need when the schools need it."
While the demand for healthy local food abounds, meaning new business opportunities along with it, the number of farmers is declining in West Virginia.
Davidson said the department has been giving out specialty-crop grants for several years. Farmers can use those to build things like greenhouses and high tunnels -- basically an unheated greenhouse -- to expand the growing season.
"They're not really production grants, but more along the lines of research grants," Davidson said. "We want to encourage projects that people can share what they've learned once they're done with it."
McKinley Principal Amy Scott said during Wednesday's event that she hopes local food will someday be regularly available to students, rather than a once- or twice-a-month occasion.
Davidson credited the Department of Education and local officials for the progress the farm-to-school movement has made in recent years.
"Anything in farm-to-school is a local initiative because the purchasing decisions in these school systems are made by the local food director," he said. "They can choose to go with the Syscos and the U.S. Foods of the world, or they can use locally grown stuff."
Reach David Gutman or Yaqoob Malik at david.gut...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.