Farm-to-school idea of Helmick’s deserves an A+

[cleeng_content id="489827291" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]In the early 1970s when I was a first-grader in Gerrardstown, recess meant the chance to frolic on the lovely, bucolic playground behind the school, with the mountains visible to the west and to the east, thanks to the orchard that adjoined the school property, rows of red apples on the trees every fall.

So at lunch one day when the school cafeteria offered up Red Delicious apples, I naturally assumed the fruit came from over the hill.

A little geography lesson ensued. It turns out our lunchtime apples came from Washington – and not the Washington 90 minutes away where Gerrardstown Elementary’s older students headed for the big field trip every spring but far-away-on-the-West Coast Washington State.

I’m sure some adults explained to me the wisdom involved in that decision, but I don’t recall it ever making much sense.

So I’m delighted the man newly at the helm of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture is offering a new school of thought: Feeding the Mountain State’s schoolchildren meals made with farm products grown close to home.

Walt Helmick’s statewide “Farm to School” program kicked off last week at Preston High School in Kingwood with a luncheon featuring West Virginia-grown ground beef, potatoes, broccoli and cantaloupe.

The Preston County school system already buys tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, eggs and honey from local farmers, an Associated Press reporter learned from Charlene Strahin, who serves as the Preston school system’s child nutrition coordinator.

Strahin’s vowing to feed the school system’s 2,000 students locally grown fare whenever possible. “It’s fresher,” she told the AP. “The fresher the food, the better taste you have.”

Students seem to agree.

Friday afternoon after the schools served up the farm-to-cafeteria table spread, a picture posted on the Department of Agriculture’s new Twitter account showed a Preston High custodian standing beside a single trash bag, smiling and looking incredulous. “Only 1/4th of the trash today after lunch at Preston High!” read the caption. “Definitely makes janitor Richard Bell’s job easier!”

Strahin says she aims to keep buying local as the weathers cools, too. Preston students will munch on locally sourced salads thanks to farmers who employ hydroponics to raise lettuce long after the traditional summer growing season.

Helmick’s work suits longtime state schools administrator Rick Goff just fine. As the head of the Office of Child Nutrition in Charleston, he’s been pushing to serve students healthier fare, including farm-fresh fruits and vegetables with their roots in West Virginia.

Goff says state department of education’s efforts have created infrastructure to incorporate locally grown products into school menus in more than 30 counties.

Besides fruits and vegetables, the state’s cattle industry could also benefit from the Farm to School initiative as schools begin to serve beef that’s raised and processed in the state, according to Buddy Davidson, Helmick’s press officer.

The money involved isn’t mere peanuts. Last school year, her county’s school system shelled out $11,000 just on lettuce, she said. Public school systems across the state spend about $100 million each year feeding students, but little of that goes to West Virginia farms, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

West Virginia agriculture, which grows or raises nearly $500 million in products each year, represents a great, untapped market, Helmick said.

Helmick, you might remember, is a 69-year-old former Democratic state lawmaker from Pocahontas County who created some controversy last year on his way to his election to the state’s top agriculture post. In his party’s crowded primary, the onetime Senate Finance chairman bested even Bob Tabb, the lifelong Jefferson County farmer who had served as top deputy in Charleston to Gus Douglass, at the time the longest-serving agriculture commissioner in the nation. Helmick also beat out a former agriculture field supervisor, an assistant state ag commissioner and a Kanawha County farmer.

Once he’d won the nomination, Helmick was lambasted by Republicans as a “fake farmer.” They decried Allegheny Lodge Enterprises, Helmick’s 200-acre water-bottling company in Minnehaha Springs, as not a real agricultural enterprise.

State law mandates the agriculture commissioner be “a practical farmer, learned in the science of agriculture, and shall have made agriculture his chief business for a period of 10 years immediately preceding his election.”

In an editorial backing Helmick’s general election challenger – Monongalia County farmer Kent Leonhardt – the newspaper in Huntington praised Helmick for his friendliness and his “great head of hair” but went on to ask, “Walt Helmick as … an Agriculture Commissioner candidate? How dumb does Helmick think the voters are? It doesn’t matter if Senator Walt Helmick dons some bib overalls and carries a pitchfork with him everywhere, he’s not fooling the West Virginia farm community.”

But it turns out, Helmick’s years as a small business owner and other work, including serving as executive director of the Pocahontas County Development Authority and as president of H and S Welding Supply, has him focused very much on the bottom line – how he as ag chief can help farmers in West Virginia earn a better living. Beyond the schools market, Helmick also sees the state’s prisons as another avenue to put more dough in state farmers’ pockets.

“We are importing food from other states when we should be growing it right here,” Helmick said during a recent tour of an orchard in Hampshire County. “We feed 6,000 prisoners three meals a day on any given day. West Virginians are spending $7 billion for out-of-state food. We’re not exporting, we’re importing.”

I don’t know if I’d bet the farm on Helmick’s initiative, but it sure is an idea that’s growing on me.


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