For years, the school lunch business has been dominated by a few major national food distribution companies. Sysco and U.S. Foods, among others, supply thousands of school districts with food products at an economical cost.
Those providers are helpful to school system buyers who must procure a steady, reliable supply of food at competitive prices. But relying solely on the big suppliers tends to promote processed food over fresh and large conglomerates over local farmers.
Thankfully, many organizations realize the potential of connecting local schools with local farmers.
The W.Va. Department of Agriculture and many other organizations, public and private, are working to promote sourcing local foods into local schools.
Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his staff held an event at Preston High School to celebrate one such arrangement. Menu items included West Virginia-raised ground beef, broccoli and cantaloupe.
"I was shocked by the number of kids who came up and said thank you" for providing fresher food, said Agriculture Communications Director Butch Antolini.
In some cases, the students are getting involved too.
In Tucker County, agriculture students from the school's vocational program work in a new greenhouse. Students from the county's biology, chemistry and environmental sciences classes help out, reported David Gutman in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
"Every day since the first week of school, there's been fresh vegetables [in the cafeteria] from our students," said Tucker County High School's Assistant Principal Junior Helmick.
Those promoting locally grown foods are taking the right approach. As West Virginians discuss ways to diversify the state's economy, agriculture has the potential to be a key growth area. And for the state to have a bustling agriculture economy tomorrow, students need to be involved today.
Make no mistake. The large suppliers will still be an important part of the process, as it would take years, if ever, for the state's own agriculture industry to support all of the state's schools. But the school systems are making a good start.
Overall, West Virginians spend more than $7 billion on food, with less than one percent of that money staying in the state. Buying more local food products grows our own economy.
It's great to see our state's leaders and students working together toward a healthier, more diverse economic future.