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These school lunches are fresh from the farm

SISSONVILLE, W.Va. -- It was a veritable bouquet of West Virginia produce: orange-glazed carrots, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, red beets, gold beets and the exotic-looking watermelon radish.

All were grown in Upshur County, harvested Wednesday afternoon and by 11:20 a.m. Thursday neatly laid out in a cafeteria service line at Sissonville Middle School.

By 11:21, the seventh-grade class was filing through that line, eyeing the vegetables and tentatively scooping them onto their plates, along with thick slices of roast beef from Doddridge County, eggs from Cabell County and apple spice cake baked in Upshur County.

At lunch Thursday, all the food served at Sissonville Middle was locally sourced, part of an initiative to get more local food into schools across the county and the state. That meant nothing processed or frozen — everything was delivered to the school from a West Virginia farm and prepared by the school's cooks.

"A lot of kids haven't ever seen carrots this color," said Marlene Sizemore, the school's head cook. "We're trying to get them to try foods they wouldn't normally eat, and to keep doing that through their lifetime."

Thursday's spread was decidedly different than a normal day's menu, when the kids see a lot of pizza and tacos that originate in factories far away and arrive at the school frozen.

"The meat actually looks like meat," said Morgan Good, 13. "Usually it doesn't look like that."

Morgan was a fan of the meat, as well as the roasted vegetables, although she identified them by pointing her fork to the vegetables and saying she liked "that stuff, whatever it is."

The unfamiliar food didn't always inspire confidence — the Brussels sprouts, for example, got less attention than the spice cake did — but that's part of the point.

Kanawha County students have been seeing some locally sourced food on their lunch trays since October, but so far it's mainly been things like apple butter. Thursday's lunch was meant to initiate a larger push for local food in the county's cafeterias.

Diane Miller, Kanawha County's child nutrition director, has been leading that charge since she took the position last summer. She characterized the "farm to school" movement as one part agricultural invigoration effort, one part nutrition project.

"To me it's like this perfect puzzle," she said. "You take the farmers and support them and put it with nutrition for the kids, and you just have a great way to go about planning a menu."

Cooking with locally grown food gives school cooks more control over what goes into each menu. That makes it attractive to administrators who are struggling to adjust to federal legislation passed in 2010 that imposes strict, health-conscious guidelines on the lunch menus in public schools.

"What we're trying to do is show off the natural flavor of the food," Miller said. "There's no time lapse between harvesting and cooking, so the flavor and the texture are still there so we don't have to flavor it with salt and butter."

So far, 28 counties in West Virginia have started serving locally grown food in their school cafeterias. Ten of those, including Kanawha, are doing it with help from grants from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For all of its desirability, flaws remain: there aren't currently enough West Virginia farms to support a robust local menu in all of the state's schools, and the local climate inevitably imposes limitations on selection (it's hard to find a West Virginia-grown tomato in mid-February, for example).

Plus, there's the strain of transitioning from a "heat and serve" system in the cafeteria kitchen, to a more involved approach. It took Sissonville's cafeteria staff hours to prep, cut and cook the 191-pound flank of beef they had delivered.

But they did so with aplomb — Sizemore and her staff like making things that taste good. And they've been promised that in the future all meat, no matter where it comes from, will be cut before it arrives.

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


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