Farmer carrying watermelon.

Schools increase farm-fresh lunch offerings and need more farmers to help meet the demand.

Originally published in West Virginia Focus magazine

When Cristi Rulen, food service director for Mason County Schools, began purchasing food from local farmers three years ago, she came to a jarring realization­­—why hadn’t she already been doing this?

On any given school day, Mason County serves about 2,500 hot lunches to students in 10 schools. That’s 450,000 meals in a typical school year, paid for with a $2 million annual food budget. Rulen was sending most of that money to U.S. Foods, a national supplier that brings tractor-trailer loads of fresh, frozen, and canned foods right to her cafeterias’ back doors.

But she realized buying food from local growers allowed her to stock school pantries while also pumping money back into the local economy. “It’s amazing that we haven’t thought about this earlier. We could keep all the money here,” she says. “I was sending money to who-knows-where to buy this stuff, when we have producers right here. Why not support our farmers?” And it wasn’t just a goodwill gesture. The school system was gaining something, too: fresh, healthy, affordable, good-tasting food students enjoyed eating.

Three years later, Mason County Schools is buying more local produce than ever. The county spent more than $77,000 on food from local growers during the 2013-14 school year, and that number probably will be even bigger by the end of the current school year. “It keeps getting bigger every year because the farmers know, if I say I’m going to buy it, I’m going to buy it,” Rulen says. “They see that it’s working. They see that it’s not going to go away. It’s not a one-time shot and it’s done.”

The program is not without growing pains. While Mason County Schools is purchasing lots of food from local growers, Rulen still buys most of the school system’s groceries from U.S. Foods. “There’s not enough farmers. They cannot grow enough stuff to keep the school operating.” In August Rulen bought six steer at the Mason County Fair. The meat was raised, slaughtered, and processed right in Mason County. Rulen and some maintenance workers drove from school to school, delivering hundreds of pounds of fresh ground beef and beef roast. “It was enough for one meal,” she says.

Large-scale farming—the kind you see in states like California, Iowa, Nebraska, or Texas—has never really occurred in West Virginia, for one simple reason. There is not enough flat land. So even though Mason County is one of the state’s top agricultural areas, producers are only able to supply a small fraction of the school system’s demand. Rulen said it’s even worse for her counterparts in school systems with fewer farms and more children, like Kanawha and Putnam counties. “They want to do this, too, but they can’t because there’s no farmers. You can imagine, if I can’t get enough produce, in Kanawha County there’d be no way.”

Thirty-eight of West Virginia’s 55 school systems are participating in the state’s three-year-old Farm to School program, although some are more devoted to the cause than others. Mollie Wood, assistant director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition, said the program still has two major hurdles to clear: making it as easy as possible for county food service directors to purchase local foods, and finding enough farmers to make the food in the first place.

There might be a way to fix both issues at once. The education department, the state Department of Agriculture, and the West Virginia University Extension Service are working to develop “food hubs” throughout the state, with help from a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Local farmers who band together to sell their goods, acting like miniature food distributors. Tom McConnell, program leader for the West Virginia University Extension Service Small Farm Center, said each hub will operate differently but will follow the same basic plan. Hub members will meet with school systems to find out what kinds of food they want and how much they need. Farmers will then decide how much of the school system’s needs they can meet and distribute that workload among hub members.

With a food hub, county food service directors would not have to call several different farmers to find enough fresh tomatoes for the school salad bars. Instead they would just place orders with their local hubs. McConnell said working as cooperatives also would allow farmers to purchase specialty equipment they could not otherwise afford. Members could pool their money and purchase a potato digger, for example, to be shared among the hub members. Once the hubs get going, McConnell says some groups might also build common storage buildings or processing facilities for their products.

The arrangement is not without its downsides, however. In addition to giving up a little of their independence, hub members will not be able to sell their crops at farmers’ market prices. School systems could not afford that. But in return for selling their crops at lower prices, the farmers will gain steady customers. “We just can’t buy ground beef at twice the price because it’s local. That’s not what we’re talking about. We can’t buy at farmers’ market prices, but at the same time we are going to buy more,” Wood says.

McConnell says it might be difficult at first to convince growers to join their local hubs. Farmers are an independent bunch, after all. He’s certain the program will take off once growers recognize the opportunities it presents, however, since the model could eventually be expanded to include other large institutions like hospitals and prisons. If all goes according to plan, the possibilities for growth are nearly endless. “Farm-to-school is the perfect place for all this to start. You’ve got to work as a group, make decisions as a group and enjoy the prosperity. Farmers haven’t tried it, but I think once they do, they’ll find it’s easier than they first thought. It’ll take several years, but this could be the salvation of West Virginia’s rural economy. Maybe its economy in general,” he says.

Wood says the farm-to-school program is intended to work the other way around, too: sending students from their classrooms into careers in farming. Rulen is doing her part. Of the $77,000 Mason County spent on local produce last year, more than $24,000 of that money went to students in Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs. And remember those six beef cattle Rulen purchased at the county fair? Each was raised by a Mason County Schools student.

Wood says encouraging student farmers is essential for the program to continue. The average West Virginia farmer is 59 years old, so the state needs to train a new generation of growers to take the older generation’s place. “We’ve got to have farmers,” she says. “We want them to think about farming as a career.”

Written by Zach Harold

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