The West Virginia Farm-to-School Community Development Group was formed in 2011 to increase the use of locally grown food in the school systems.

The group is collaborating with the West Virginia Department of Education and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture to connect farmers with schools, as well as increasing the hands-on education of students.

Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick said it is important to utilize local farmers for many different reasons.

“In West Virginia, all fifty-five counties taken together, is spending about $105 to 120 million [on food for schools],” Helmick said. “How much of it comes from West Virginia? Very little. In fact, less than one half of one percent of the food consumed in West Virginia [schools] is grown [here]. We’re near the bottom when it comes to children consuming food that’s growing in their state.”

The Farm-to-School program will see to it that money remains in the state. It will also improve the quality of the food consumed by West Virginia’s students.

“The movement is on the cutting edge,” Helmick said. “Every superintendent, and every school teacher, and every school service personnel, they will tell you that children are better off. Our students are better off. They perform better if they have fresh produce.”

While the state school system is on board and several counties are already implementing the program, Helmick said there are expectations that must be met before all produce is replaced by the Farm-to-School supply.

“They expect a product that is equal in quality and we have no problem with that because it will be fresh and will be certified as West Virginia grown,” Helmick said. “The second part, it has to be comparable in price and with the cost of transportation and the cost of other producing products to bring it in to West Virginia, we don’t have a problem with either. We can meet those two – comparable in price and comparable in quality – yeah, West Virginians can do it, and we can grow a bunch of it.”

Along with working with established farmers and up-and-coming farmers, the Farm-to-School program implements educational resources where students will learn the importance of locally grown produce, as well as how to cultivate their own gardens.

“The picture we hope to be painted at the end of the day is in such a way that we will have knowledgeable West Virginians when they leave our school system – that is our PreK through 12 system,” Helmick said. “We want them to be able to grow a product that’s good for them and good for the families they live in.

“Let’s just take Green Bank Elementary School,” he continued. “Beautiful school in the mountains. Or Hillsboro. Any one you want to pick. Marlinton Elementary. Any one of those there in Pocahontas County. Wow, what a beautiful setting for every one of them. They have available land near there or around there that they can learn a little about the basics of what the largest industry in the world has to offer to them, and offer to them in such a fresh and wholesome way.”

To help farmers increase their produce supply or to help students begin a garden, West Virginia Farm-to-School Coordinator Buddy Davidson explained there are grants available through the state.

“The Department of Education had a number of grants that have gone into schools to help build up these programs and some of it has gone directly to student farmers,” Davidson said. “The Department of Agriculture has put specialty crop grants into the schools, as well.”

The specialty crop grants focus on specific crops that are not considered commodity crops.

“Probably the best thing that farmers can be looking at right now for school systems is salad bar items – leafy vegetables, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, those kind of things,” Davidson said. “A lot of our specialty crop grants beyond those that have set up programs in schools specifically, have gone to farmers to experiment with high tunnels. Extending the season is critical to maximize the money we can get from the school system. This is a captive market for West Virginia farmers so it’s not going to come and go. It’s a way they can get a good price at a volume that they’re not going to see at a farmers market or elsewhere.”

The focus is currently on produce, but Helmick hopes the program will extend into meat and poultry products.

“We’ve got to get to a point that we’ve got the ability to process and make sure it is USDA approved, that sort of thing,” Helmick said. “It’s easier with the crops and vegetables. We do have tons of beef out in West Virginia. We have to have some more processing in order to get the meat into the system directly from the student and/or grower in the county. If a person was trying to sell beef or pork or chicken in the school system, it has to be certified. It has to be USDA approved.”

Davidson is currently working on a state-wide program to expand into the meat and poultry product.

“A lot of them are doing eggs right now,” Davidson said. “Eggs are very much there [in the schools]. Meat is a possibility, but it is a bigger process.”

To Helmick, the biggest draw to Farm-to-School is the fact that the food is local and students will be able to say that they ate a meal that originated in West Virginia and possibly in their own county.

“We’ve got to recognize and understand that somebody else in the country grew the product that our kids are eating in West Virginia today and they transported it in here, and they got paid for it,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that West Virginians become entrepreneurs. We have to develop a mind set, a culture and where better to develop that than Pocahontas County that has a rich, strong history of agriculture. We’ve got to return some of it to those days. It’s a different day. It’s a different approach.”

For more information on the Farm to School program, visit www.groweducatesell.com

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at sastewart@pocahontastimes.com