The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the way schools in West Virginia are sourcing local food as part of the state’s Fresh Food Act. The lessons learned through this crisis may influence how districts meet legislation benchmarks for the next five years.
In 2019 West Virginia legislature passed the Fresh Food Act (HB 2396), which mandates that state-funded institutions source five percent of their fresh produce, meat, and poultry from farmers within the state, if possible.
Currently, the rule is in a phase-in stage. Institutions must procure one percent of qualifying foods within the state or receive a waiver from the Department of Agriculture. The aim is to increase that number by one percentage point each fiscal year with a goal of meeting the five percent benchmark by fiscal year 2025.
For many institutions, making strides towards that one percent goal has been a challenge, and enforcement mechanisms have not yet been put in place. Schools, however, are ahead of the curve, according to Crescent Gallagher, Director of Communications for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. “I expect that many school districts are already meeting the [one percent] goal. Each county is different, but many of them have been working hard to source locally,” he tells Food Tank.
In light of the pandemic, farmers are thinking differently about the way they provide local food to schools. “Most of our farm to school sales is all around the salad bar, and now there’s no salad bar anywhere. There was no need for our product,” Fritz Boettner, Director of Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective explains to Food Tank. The Collective aggregates food from local farmers and conducts wholesale and retail sales.
Changes in food distribution methods—often through pre-packed boxes or to-go meals—have dramatically changed the sourcing landscape. But according to Bekki Leigh, Farm-to-School Coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Child Nutrition, many schools are still looking to local producers to round out the meals.
Turnrow has managed to keep farm-to-school sales up by focusing on one product schools can use: apples. Abundant in the state’s eastern panhandle, Boettner explains they do not require constant refrigeration and are easy to incorporate into to-go meal packs.
This type of single-product sourcing, however, still presents issues for Turnrow’s overarching goal, which is to help local farmers increase production and improve agricultural capacity within the state.
“If you look at our farm-to-school sales, it’s more than it’s ever been, but it’s all one product,” Boettner tells Food Tank. He explains that while apple sales have been a boon to orchardists, they aren’t doing much to increase farmers’ production or sales.
Farmers and officials hope that building on new relationships to bring more locally-sourced foods into schools will lead to more product diversity. And according to Leigh, these partnerships have the potential to continue beyond the pandemic.
The production of packaged, ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables is one avenue worth exploring, says Melinda Francis, Coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education Office of Child Nutrition. “If we had the capacity to make that happen it would definitely be a huge hit, because it’s something that they could utilize.”
While stakeholders are still working on building relationships, the pandemic has had a positive impact on sales of local food, both direct-to-consumer and through initiatives spearheaded by food access organizations.
“Local processing facilities and farmers’ markets have doubled what they were doing last year, so we know there’s an increase in demand,” Gallagher tells Food Tank.
“The markets have changed slightly,” said Boettner, “but we were able to be resilient to that change because we had a very diverse market landscape to sell to, so when restaurants and schools dried up, retailers increased, and food access increased.”
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
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