Locally grown meals on school menu
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On Wednesday, everything on students' lunch plates at McKinley Middle School came from West Virginia.
Veggie burgers were made of certified organic tofu from Roane County, and the bun from a bakery in Wayne County.
A variety of veggies grown in Putnam County were offered as side dishes, in addition to apples from a farm in Jefferson County.
Even dessert options had local ties, like muffins made with wheat grown in Upshur County.
As part of National School Lunch Week, the West Virginia Department of Education celebrated its farm-to-table initiative in schools across Kanawha County Wednesday by providing students with a locally grown spread.
The state Department of Education launched its Farm to School (F2S) program three years ago, with 30 school districts participating and receiving grants and incentives to incorporate more local products into student meals.
Rick Goff, executive director of the state Office of Child Nutrition, said the initiative has taken off like wildfire across the state.
"It's becoming more and more popular," Goff said. "I can remember three years ago when the concept first came into our office, I really didn't think of West Virginia as an agricultural state ... but it's very popular."
Last year, $350,000 was spent on local products in West Virginia schools, according to Goff.
"It's so much different for [students] to taste food that's locally grown, instead of purchased from out of the state or country," Goff said. "Everything we've done in West Virginia is indicative of a model program tying to eradicate childhood obesity. We have some of the most stringent nutrition programs in the country."
Similarly, a Cooking From Scratch program has worked to train school cooks in nearly every district in the state to "get away from processed, heat-and-serve, high sodium, high fat content meals," Goff said.
Diane Miller, food services coordinator for Kanawha County Schools, started her day Wednesday at about 5 a.m. to work with, and learn from, the cooking crews.
"I didn't want to put on a presentation that couldn't be replicated the next day," Miller said. "Recipes have been written down so we can standardize them -- so we can use them again, find out what the students liked, what they didn't like."
To Miller's surprise, she found out Wednesday that the students at McKinley Middle like Brussels sprouts.
"That's what we're about ... creating healthy meals but keeping in mind flavor. We're not here to feed the trashcans, we want to feed their bellies and we want [students] happy. And today we're seeing signs that they're really enjoying it," she said.
Miller said schools across West Virginia have come a long way when it comes to being health-conscious, but events like Wednesday's need to become the norm.
"It used to be maybe once a week you'd have a non-processed, made-from-scratch meal. As we progress with nutritional standards, we are moving forward," she said. "Farm-to-school for me is not just a one-time event. What I want to do is find longevity in the program so that I can say every single day at every school in Kanawha County, we're going to have something fresh from a local farmer.
"But I have to find other farmers to be able to bring that quantity into Kanawha County."
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4814.