Program still in its infancy, possibilities are endless
The national Farm-to-School initiative aims to bring more fresh, local produce and food into school lunches. West Virginia started participating in the program about three years ago, and Pocahontas County has been involved to varying degrees since then, as well.
Andrew Pense is the Farm-to-School coordinator for the state through the West Virginia Department of Education in the Office of Child Nutrition, and he provides technical support to schools that are trying to purchase food locally. Pense said the initiative aims to educate kids about nutrition and growing food, and also provide them with healthy lunches prepared using locally grown food. Pense said the program has a lot of potential in West Virginia, and that students, growers and the local economy could all benefit from it.
“We're really in the beginning stages, but it has a lot of momentum,” Pense said. “The program is designed to bring in fresh produce for the kids, but it also allows the farmers to kind of bypass the middle man and go straight to a market without having to go very far. It's really exciting on the community development level, but then also in a child nutrition sense, as well.”
Pense said with the Farm-to-School initiative, schools are actually kind of taking a step back to how things used to be.
“Counties have been buying produce to feed kids as long as there have been lunches served in schools,” explained Pense. “When schools first started serving food to kids, they bought it from the farmers around them. As agriculture and distribution was industrialized, slowly, local farmers got cut out of the equation. So we're kind of re-inventing the wheel so-to-speak.”
Pense said West Virginia has some agricultural programs and associations in place already that puts the state a step ahead.
“One of the distinctions of Farm-to-School in West Virginia is there are a number of Ag-Ed and FFA-ed programs that have gotten really excited about Farm to School,” Pense said. “They've actually started growing produce and selling it back to the school, or students are growing food at home and becoming registered vendors and selling food to the schools.”
Pense said new federal regulations were put in place recently that revolve around nutrition, and might help the Farm-to-School initiative's development.
“This last year the feds rolled out new meal pattern regulations,” he said. “It requires that there be a diversity of vegetables served in school lunches now. Iceburg lettuce and ranch on the salad bar doesn't count as a salad bar anymore. Schools are going to have to serve a certain proportion of green, leafy vegetables, a certain proportion of red and orange vegetables, like bell peppers or sweet potatoes. The beauty of that is, now there's going to be a diversity in the demand.”
According to Pense, an excess of starches and processed foods in your diet can be directly related to your overall health.
“The Farm-to-School initiative opens up the door to buy less-processed, locally-sourced produce. A kid who tastes a tomato that was picked green in Mexico, shipped across the U.S. and then gassed with ethylene gas — that tomato only has as much sugar in it as the day it was picked,” Pense said.
Pense also said eating more fresh, local produce would encourage kids to eat healthier simply because fresh fruits and vegetables taste better.
“A tomato you picked off the vine in your backyard — the reason it tastes so much better is because as it ripens, it continues to gain sugar and nutrients. So it's going to have better flavor. A green tomato ships really well — it doesn't bruise and it ripens in the box, but it has a lot less nutrients in it just because of when it was picked off the vine. If kids get something that's not tasting bland, and it's picked at it's peak of freshness, they're going to enjoy that more. They'll be more likely to eat their veggies.”
Another benefit of the initiative is how much money will be pumped back into local economies.
“When money is spent on, say a franchise, a certain amount of money goes back to the parent organization,” explained Pense. “If that's not located in the state, then that money is leaving the state. It's really wild — West Virginians spend over $7 billion on food each year. Something like 90% of that goes out-of-state. Imagine $7 billion being pumped back into the state. That would bolster the economy so much that it's unreal. Instead, only about $700 million stays in the state. It just doesn't make any sense.”
Pense said the idea of eating more local food is growing across the country.
“On the USDA website, you can see that farmers markets have grown by 9% a year for the last ten years,” said Pense. “And that's during a recession. That's really amazing. The local foods movement is picking up steam through an economic downturn.”
A lack of growers to provide enough fresh produce has been one of the drawbacks Pense said he has seen so far.
“In Mason County they did a 100% local school lunch,” he said. “It took 2,000 pounds of potatoes. That was every last available potato in the county that an extension agent could find, and that only fed the kids potato wedges for one day. They're in school for 180 days, so you can imagine how massive the demand is. The ag-infrastructure isn't quite developed enough, that's really our limiting factor right now, but it's really exciting working with the WVU extension agents because they're preparing farmers with growing plans to help meet this giant demand.”
Pense said it isn't hard for anyone interested in selling produce to schools to become a registered vendor.
“People would have to have a business license,” Pense said. “Getting a business license isn't difficult at all. It's like $30 and you fill out a form — one sheet. You send it in and I think you're even registered for a couple of years. Then, they have to become a registered vendor with the school. In most counties that involves simply filling out a W-9 and submitting that information. It's really not hard to become a local vendor.”
Lisa Dennison started working as director of food services for the Pocahontas County Board of Education last April. She said the county has been involved with the Farm-to-School initiative for a few years now, but things really started rolling last year.
“When I got onboard, Adrienne [Cedarleaf] had already started with some of the educational components with Marlinton Elementary School and Marlinton Middle School,” Dennison said. “Adrienne deserves a lot of credit. There was no playbook for Farm-to-School, and she got it off to a good start. Now we're hoping to continue it. I think it's amazing. It definitely compliments the national school lunch program.”
Fortunately, for Pocahontas County, more help has arrived.
Liza Dobson is an AmeriCorps volunteer working as Farm-to-School coordinator for Pocahontas County. She's been in the position for almost two months now and she has big plans. Originally from Maysville, Kentucky, Dobson grew up around animals and has a passion for growing food.
“My parents started this resort, it had like 30 horses and acres and acres of land, and creeks and horse trails,” Dobson said. “My dad decided that he wanted to have a petting zoo at the farm, so I was appointed the petting zoo manager. I was in charge of chickens and ducks and rabbits, a donkey named Clyde, a sheep. It was just a petting zoo, not any kind of production operation.”
Dobson said she's a vegetarian and she knows how to grow her own food — and she'll be doing that for the rest of her life.
Dobson said while she was a part of WOOF [Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms], she read about a job opportunity in Pocahontas County on a FaceBook page.
“Morgan Findley, who is a VISTA in Mullens, West Virginia, posted this listing for a Farm-to-School coordinator in Pocahontas County. I read the description and I almost died. I was super excited. I'd been looking for jobs and reading job descriptions for these math related, computer-science related jobs — not for me. That's what my degree was in, but that's not what my passion was. My passion was in food, and teaching people.”
Dobson said she was inspired by the job description and applied for the position.
“A couple days go by and I get an e-mail from Lisa Dennison asking me if I was still interested in the position. I said 'Yes! I'm very interested!' It sounded like a dream job for me and I knew I would absolutely love it. She said 'if you're really interested, come in for an interview.'
Dobson said she packed up her car and hit the road. She said she moved to Marlinton without even getting the job yet. Now that she's settled in, she's getting a feel for her position. She said she works as kind of a liaison between the cafeteria workers, the food nutrition director, and the growers.
Now that Farm-to-School has a full-time volunteer, the program has expanded to all five Pocahontas County schools.
“One of my goals right now is to bring local eggs and local meat into the school cafeterias,” explained Dobson. “That's what I'm working on now because fruit and vegetable production is very slow right now because it's December. Meat and eggs might be one of the easier things to bring in, but we're still trying to figure out the logistics.”
Dobson said she also developed a survey to pass out to high schoolers at PCHS to gauge interest in the Farm-to-School initiative, and she's received some interesting feedback. She said in the responses more than two-thirds of the students indicated they were interested in knowing where their food came from.
Dobson said there have already been a couple meals served at Pocahontas County schools that included fresh produce from Tolly Peuleche's farm in Slaty Fork, Steve and Mary Saffel's farm in Huntersville, and Tim Wade's farm in Marlinton. Dobson said there are also other projects she's been developing.
“I'm starting this organization called Local Food Leaders at the high school,” she said. “My vision for it is the high schoolers will be able to be involved in after-school gardening clubs at the elementary and middle schools. They'll be working with the kids after school, and make gardens and learn about growing food. I'm thinking of it as something they could put down as experience on a college application and things like that.”
“Hopefully it'll be a way for students to come together to become like a co-op. I would love for the kids to form student/farmer co-ops or collectives that could sell to the schools. The younger kids really look up to the high schoolers,” Dobson said. “They absolutely love it when they come by and read to them or do any kind of work with them. Not only is it fun for the younger kids to work with the high schoolers, but it's really empowering for the high schoolers too, it may inspire one them to become a teacher someday.
Dobson said she sees tremendous potential with the Farm-to-School initiative in the county.
“We just need to figure out the logistics and get support from the community, which I think we're getting,” she said. “Who doesn't want the kids in the community to be healthy?”