CHARLESTON, W.Va. — 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.
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 recently provided free delivery of 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.
The structures can cost-effectively extend the growing season for many types of produce for a month in both the spring and fall.