Joey Aloi: A few changes would enable W.Va. to buy from its own growers

By By Joey Aloi
Garnet Bruell courtesy photo
Tomatoes grow at Dale Hawkins’ Fish Hawk Acres farm in Rock Cave, Upshur County, in June 2014. A few changes to state law would enable state institutions to buy more food from local growers, nurturing important agricultural industries.

West Virginia local-food advocates have long heard the refrain that, of our state’s $7 billion in food purchases, only $1 billion is grown in the state.

While there certainly are some things that we can’t expect West Virginia farms to produce — coffee, olive oil and grapefruits come to mind — a rural state like ours has the ability to raise that number quite a bit.

Many of us working on supply-side solutions like season extension and regional aggregation have seen noticeable advancements. Importantly, we’ve also noticed the sizable impact from demand-side projects like Farm-to-School. As a result, many of us began to wonder why other state institutions haven’t been able to join schools in supporting their local economies.

There are several barriers facing would-be cooperative efforts between local farmers and institutions.

First, any state institution ordering more than $25,000 worth of food must do so through a competitive bidding process overseen by the state Purchasing Division. Compared to other areas, such as Washington, D.C., which doesn’t require competitive bid for purchases under $100,000, $25,000 is an incredibly low amount, depriving institutional food directors of the ability to purchase locally.

Furthermore, to compete for these bids, bidders must be able to sell a wide variety of food products, including coffee, baby food and condiments. Most local farmers don’t produce products such as baby food or ketchup. The legal structure of this bidding process requires state institutions to purchase from one of two wholesale food distributors: Upshur County’s A.F. Wendling’s or the national conglomerate US Foods Inc.

As a Buckhannon native, I must admit I have a fondness for Wendling’s, but I don’t think any two companies should have exclusive access to the tax dollars used to purchase food for state institutions.

Third, West Virginia’s current in-state preference laws offer the same 5-percent price preference to West Virginia farmers as they do to national and international corporations that just employ people in West Virginia. It’s unrealistic to expect a local farmer to compete with the prices of a distributor operating with the efficiencies of scale available at the national level. A West Virginia grower offers so much more to the state than simply employment. A local farmer pays in-state taxes, often raises children, buys clothing and seed at local businesses, might get involved in the local PTA, and offers many other values to the community.

In spite of the best of intentions, it seems like the deck is stacked against local farmers when they attempt to sell to state institutions. Fortunately, the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, a nonprofit organization with the mission of growing West Virginia’s food economy, is sponsoring legislation that will begin to level the playing field.

First, this legislation proposes raising the amount required to begin the competitive bidding process above $25,000. This would make it easier for institutional purchasers to exercise the option of buying from local growers.

Second, the legislation proposes to restructure the contract for the statewide bidding process. This would allow a local farmer to offer items, such as eggs or potatoes, to a state institution, but it wouldn’t have to also provide other items, such as mayonnaise and canned beans.

Third, the legislation proposes offering an additional price preference, added to the 5-percent in-state preference, toward products that are grown in the state.

Under this proposal, nothing is taken away from those companies who employ West Virginians, while giving local farmers additional preference that makes them better able to compete with their large competitors.

West Virginia’s farmers are an important part of our society, our economy and the character of our state. With our region facing troubling economic times, it doesn’t make sense for our tax dollars to be sent out of state. Fortunately, the Food & Farm Coalition’s proposed legislation can do much to set this wrong right.

Please call or write your state legislators and let them know you support this policy.

Joey Aloi is former Appalachian transition fellow for a farm-to-hospital project with Charleston Area Medical Center and a board member for the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition.

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