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Farm to School program puts local food in W.Va. cafeterias

Eddie Skaggs doesn't eat Brussels sprouts at home very often.

"It's because my grandpa won't eat them," he said, and stuck his fork into a big Brussels sprout -- one of many on his lunch tray.

Skaggs, a 12-year-old sixth-grader at McKinley Middle School, ate all the sprouts he wanted at lunch Wednesday. And these Brussels sprouts, steamed and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, were locally grown: they were grown and harvested at Green Acres Farm in Upshur County.

At lunch Wednesday, all the food served at McKinley Middle was locally sourced, part of West Virginia's Farm to School Program, an initiative to get more food from West Virginia's farms into schools across the county and the state.

At lunch Wednesday, the students at McKinley had eggs from Mason County, veggie burgers from Roane County, salsa from Kanawha County, produce from Upshur County and honey from Wetzel County, among a slew of other locally sourced foods.

Nothing was processed or frozen -- it was all grown and assembled locally, prepared by the cooking staff at the school, and laid out in a fresh, colorful cafeteria service line to wait for the lunch bell.

"I love the freshness," said Amy Scott, the school's principal.

"I think it's a great opportunity for them to try different things that they may not have an opportunity to try, and they're discovering a wider variety of foods that they like ...Typically you say Brussels sprouts and kids say yuck, so I've been walking around and encouraging them to try them and so far I haven't gotten a bad review."

Skaggs, five minutes after making his way through the lunch line, had already finished his Brussels sprouts and collected more from his friend Edward Smith's tray across the table. He was encouraging his friends, a group of 6th grade boys, to try the vegetable.

On a normal day, they all admitted they're more likely to go for a slice of pizza. But most of them shrugged or nodded at the prospect of trying the sprouts, and each of them had a tray heaped with fresh, local produce and veggie burgers -- which they couldn't necessarily identify, but enjoyed eating just the same.

Even the buns those burgers were sandwiched in were a marvel of locally sourced food: the whole wheat flower was grown at Cranberry Farms in Preston County, and then delivered to Brunetti Bakery in Wayne County where it was baked.

Kanawha County students have been seeing some local fare in their cafeterias for more than a year, but that's mainly limited to things like apple butter and some produce. Still Diane Miller, Kanawha County's child nutrition director, said the Farm to Schools movement will, ideally, lead to a more sustainable system for putting local foods in schools across the county and state.

"It's a big opportunity to showcase some of the local food in West Virginia," she said. "But I don't want it to just be once a year, I really want it to be every day as much as possible."

That's not easy. There are issues with logistics that accompany the food's trip from its source to the county's schools. And there's the strain of preparing food from scratch in kitchens that are designed for less involved food preparation

Plus the growing season in West Virginia presents limitations - it's tough to get a fresh, locally grown tomato in West Virginia during January, for example.

Right now, there just aren't enough West Virginia farms to support a robust local menu in all of the state's schools. That's why organizers, like Bekki Leigh from the state Office of Child Nutrition, also sees the program as one part economic development project.

"We need more farmers," she said. "And we need to get a place as a state where we reduce the costs of distribution and all of that so it can become move localized." 

For now the project is limited, but growing: last year, around $350,000 were spent on local products in West Virginia schools. Thirty counties purchased local food for their schools last year.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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