Mason County students dine on locally grown lunch
LEON, W.Va. -- They learned the song back in their preschool days, but students at Leon Elementary and nine other Mason County schools enjoyed the fruits of Old MacDonald's labor in their school lunches Tuesday.
Local farmers grew the wheat for the whole-wheat buns, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon for the salad bar and the potatoes for the seasoned wedges. The hamburger was ground from steers raised by FFA and 4-H students.
Mason County extension agent Rodney Wallbrown, who has worked with farmers for 41 years, proposed the Farm-to-School initiative to local farmers.
"I'm really excited about Farm-to-School. I think it's the best opportunity for local farmers to market their products that I've ever been involved with," Wallbrown said. "It's a great opportunity for farmers to raise something and have a ready market for it."
Students gobbled up their watermelon, potato wedges, hamburgers, tomatoes and red bell pepper. They said they particularly liked the potato wedges, which several deemed "better than French fries."
"I wish we could have this kind of lunch every day," said fourth-grade student Hunter Dawson.
Many of the students wore straw hats, boots and flannel shirts because their teachers told them they would be eating lunch grown by local farmers. Leon Elementary has 150 students. Mason County cooks prepare an average of 2,000 school lunches daily.
Brunetti's Italian Bakery in Kenova baked 375 dozen whole-wheat hamburger buns for the hamburgers ground from five steers. Businesses purchased the steers at the Mason County Fair, then the school system purchased them. The hamburgers were ground by a local processor from all cuts.
"You'll have some T-bone and sirloin steaks mixed in there," said Wallbrown.
Farmers supplied 25 50-pound bags of potatoes. "That's how much they use in one day in Mason County schools," Wallbrown explained.
In the past few decades, local farmers have moved away from growing foods for local production, partially because the market consisted mainly of what they could sell at roadside stands and farmers' markets, which wasn't much. If they are guaranteed a local market like the school system, they'll grow more produce because they know it will sell.
Dan Foglesong, who raises mostly corn, soybeans and cattle on his 300-acre farm, was a little hesitant when Wallbrown approached him earlier this year to grow foods for the schools. He supplied the wheat for the buns, and tomatoes and cucumbers. Foglesong also sells produce, mostly squash and zucchini, to Cabell County schools.
"He talked to me in early summer and we've been trying to work it out. It happened kind of late in the growing season. I was skeptical at first. I wondered if they would go through with it," Foglesong said.
Foglesong's confidence grew after he and Wallbrown met with Cristi Rulen, Mason County Food Service Supervisor. Rulen was enthusiastic about getting local foods into the schools.
"She was really understanding about knowing at this point that we could only supply a little bit of what she needed. Most people wouldn't go with that, but she was good with it. She was willing to do that," Foglesong said.
Although the fresh produce can mean more work for food service personnel than the packaged, processed foods available from institutional suppliers, Wallbrown and Rulen both said the school cooks took on the tasks willingly.
"They work hard and take it seriously. They're dedicated to having good meals for the students," Wallbrown said. "They like using local producers, knowing they're concerned about food safety. They like keeping the money in the community."
Madora McCarty, one of two cooks at Leon Elementary, said, "This supports the local economy, it's fresher. I think the children will take pride in the food from their own county. Just today a little boy brought in a cucumber that he had grown."
As Foglesong and other farmers recognize that the local food market is real, Wallbrown hopes they'll increase production of the kinds of produce, eggs, meats and dairy foods needed by the school system and time their plantings for harvest during the school year.
For the past two years, former FFA president and Point Pleasant High School senior Wes Davis has supplied all Mason County schools with eggs from the free-range hens he raises.
Some farmers such as Foglesong are already building high tunnels, which are plastic stretched over raised growing beds that protect plants from frost and freezes and lengthen the production season. Peak production is typically in the summer, when most schools are not in session.
"Next year my planting timing will be different," said Foglesong.
The school system purchases locally grown food at the same price they'd pay big food supply corporations. "We'll take out the middle men. There's no cost to truck or package," Wallbrown said.
Because farmers must be reliable and deliver a consistently good product to make the system work, the coordination of quantity and delivery time is important, Rulen said. The state Board of Education recently hired Andy Pense in the position of Farm to School coordinator for the state schools.
Farm-to-School programs benefit communities, farmers and the students, said West Virginia Board of Education Superintendent Jorea Marple as she sampled the school's lunch.
"I've been eating school lunches for a very long time. I've never tasted a tomato like this one," Marple said.
Five Point Pleasant Middle and High School FFA students watched as the children filed past and filled their trays. Although they hadn't grown the food for this meal, they plan to supply their schools with food they grow in greenhouses and high tunnels.
"This isn't limited to adults. We can do it, too," said Caitlyn Parsons, a junior at Point Pleasant High School. "It's starting to grow."
Parsons' words are music to the ears of Wallbrown, Fogleson and other farmers who hope their children see farming for local use as a viable career path.
"There will always be kids and schools and they're going to feed the kids at schools," said Wallbrown. "There's a demand. They're going to buy all they can produce."
Reach Julie Robinson at email@example.com or 304-348-1230.