Growing business: Farms urged to work with schools

CHARLES TOWN – Long before last week’s official kickoff of a statewide “Farm to School” program, Panhandle school systems have been adding locally grown apples, cucumbers and other fresh produce to the menu.

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“I buy as much locally grown fruits and vegetables as I can,” said Arlene Leonard, who has served as the Coordinator of Child Nutrition for Jefferson County Schools since 2008.

Leonard said the school system is buying more and more food grown in the Panhandle. “It’s something that’s continuing to increase,” she said.

On Friday at Preston High School in Kingwood, state Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick formally unveiled the Farm-to-School initiative with a noon meal of hamburgers, potatoes, broccoli and cantaloupe, all of it sourced from West Virginia farms.

Officials in Preston County said they’re looking at ways to serve more locally grown food in all 10 of the public schools there. The county serves meals to about 2,000 students each day.

“It’s the type of system we would like to see imitated throughout West Virginia,” Helmick said.

The state education department has been working to cultivate ties between school districts and farmers, with the goal of getting locally grown foods on school lunch trays, said Richard Goff with the department’s Office of Child Nutrition.

The department has backed the effort with about $1 million in the past three years, he said.

For Jefferson County, where public school enrollment stands at 9,068, finding local farms able to provide food for the whole school system can be challenging, Leonard said. “We’re a more urban district,” she said.

In some cases, high schools in the Panhandle have as many students as some entire counties elsewhere in West Virginia. Larger school systems such as hers and neighboring Berkeley County’s need to be able to work with vendors capable of supplying produce for the whole school system, she said.

Derek Kilmer of Kilmer’s Farm Market has made it easier for Panhandle schools to serve more locally grown goods, Leonard said.

“Agriculture is his world,” she said. “He came to us and offered to make it happen. He set up delivery. With apples, he had them graded for us and provides us with different varieties. He looks for local farmers who supply vegetables for salads.

“It’s worked out very well.”

As Kilmer connects with more suppliers in the region, he’s able to ensure more fruits and vegetables for Panhandle schools, Leonard said.

Derek Kilmer, who owns Kilmer’s Farm Market in Inwood, says Jefferson County Schools was the first system to partner with him and now he also provides produce to Berkeley, Pendleton, Hardy, Hampshire and Grant county schools.

“As long as it’s in season, competitively priced and packaged the way they’re used to, they’re happy to buy from us,” said Kilmer, who relies on fruits and vegetables grown by eight other farms in the Panhandle and nearby Smithsburg, Md., and Winchester, Va.

“That’s going to be a challenge for West Virginia – finding enough mid-size and big farms to handle this kind of commercial need,” he said.

He said he’s hearing positive feedback from cafeteria managers. “We’ve sold more peaches this year than ever before and we’re told students really loved them,” he said. “Nectarines have been another big hit, and students enjoy all the varieties of apples that we can supply now – not just Red and Golden Delicious apples but Fuji, Pink Lady, Ginger Gold, lots of different kinds.”

Buddy Davidson, a spokesman for the state agriculture department, said transportation could be a factor in supplying West Virginia-produced food into schools where there’s little agricultural production,

But the distances within the state would be much shorter than for most foods served in the state’s schools now, Davidson said.

“How far is the food that they’re already getting being transported?” he said. “If they’re getting it within West Virginia, it’s bound to be closer….”

Davidson said more than half of the school systems in the state are buying local food already thanks to work by the state school system. “Now we’re trying to get our farmers more aware of the program,” he said.

Feedback on the expansion of the farm-to-school approach so far has been “extraordinary,” Davidson said. “The lunch Friday in Preston County got a lot of attention and the students seemed to really enjoy it. I had the lunch, too – it was delicious.”

There are so many pluses to the idea, Davidson said. “You’re creating more income for farmers, money that stays in West Virginia and gets recirculated in West Virginia,” he said. “Students get fresh, local food that’s healthier and tastes better, and the school systems get to deal with local farmers so they know where the food is coming from.

“It’s a winner all the way around.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report

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