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.