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Schools seen as big market for W.Va. farm products

Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia agriculture officials are trying to gain a bigger share of a lucrative market for the state's farmers — hungry schoolchildren.

A statewide "Farm to School" program starts Friday at Preston High School in Kingwood, where the goal is to have local food on the menu all school year. The event includes a luncheon featuring West Virginia-grown ground beef, potatoes, broccoli and cantaloupe.

"It's the type of system we would like to see imitated throughout West Virginia," said state Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.

County school systems across the Mountain State spend about $100 million each year feeding students, but little of that goes to West Virginia producers, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

The program is aimed at raising farm income while offering fresh food for students. Sales to schools could be a major windfall for West Virginia agriculture, which yields nearly $500 million in products each year.

"West Virginia farmers have a receptive but untapped market in county school systems," 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. The result, he said, is a "farm to school infrastructure to incorporate locally grown products into school menus in more than 30 counties," Goff said.

State agriculture officials point to Preston County in northern West Virginia as an example of how schools can support local farmers.

The Preston County school system already purchases tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, eggs and honey from local farmers, said Charlene Strahin, child nutrition coordinator for the district. The school system is hoping to have a constant supply of local food on the menu in all 10 of its cafeterias, which serve about 2,000 students daily.

She's hoping to get a steady supply of lettuce from local farmers who are using growing techniques that will allow them to keep producing long after the traditional season ends. The district spent $11,000 on lettuce last school year, she said.

Strahin said she'll buy locally grown food whenever possible.

"It's fresher," she said. "The fresher the food, the better taste you have."

Preston County was chosen for the program's statewide kickoff because it has a group of farmers who are able to supply food to the schools, said Buddy Davidson, a spokesman for the state agriculture department.

Transportation could be a factor in supplying West Virginia-produced food into schools where there's little agricultural production, he said. But the distances within the state would be much shorter than for most foods served in the state's schools, he 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 to where it came from originally."

Besides fruits and vegetables, the state's cattle industry could also benefit from the Farm to School initiative, Davidson said. Schools could become a market for beef that's raised and processed in the state, he said.

"What we can do in this state is cut out the middle man, increase our processing capability and market that meat within the state," he said. "And schools are just a part of where we would like to see that go."