HUNTINGTON - While rectangular pizza slices may not be phased from school cafeterias anytime soon, Cabell County Schools has taken the "eat local" mantra to heart with its Farm to School initiative. Purchasing as much produce and eggs from local farms as it can, the school board calls it a win-win: Providing students with fresh food and providing local farmers with a steady buyer.
"We've had a lot of success using fresh products from the farm, and we hope that it helps the local farmer as well as (keeps) fresh foods in the schools," Rhonda McCoy, director of food services for Cabell County Schools, said.
The board was introduced to the idea by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2012, and met with local farmers to see if the interest was there. Since then, McCoy said around eight or nine local farms, mostly in Cabell County, but some in Mason and Greenbrier counties, are regularly selling to schools.
Depending on what produce is in season, McCoy said what they can buy is determined by how much farmers are growing.
In August and early September, summer crops like green peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash are menu mainstays. In cooler months, broccoli, potatoes, and even some strawberries and peaches find their way onto students' trays. Fresh eggs, lettuce and West Virginia apples are available yearround.
"(We serve) whatever we can get fresh from the farmers," McCoy said.
While locally-sourced produce will likely never be the majority of foods served in school, McCoy said if the school board can find a good farmer, they will go the extra mile to purchase from them. She added that the board pays the same price whether the food comes from local farmers or an outside provider, and the school board pays nearly $100,00 each school year to local farmers.
All potential farms are screened for the board by an AmeriCorps volunteer to make sure its operations are safe, and all produce is inspected by cooks when it arrives at the school. Using broccoli as an example, McCoy said an average order would be around 400 heads for one week.
In addition to the handful of farmers regularly selling to the school, McCoy noted that if student farmers produce food, the board will purchase from them as well. Cabell Midland and Huntington High both raise school gardens, with produce grown ending up on the cafeteria salad bar.
Huntington East Middle School recently set up its own high tunnel, and McCoy said the board will purchase their produce as well.
While the Farm to School program does provide farmers with a steady buyer, fresh food doesn't matter much unless students are eating it. McCoy said school cooks have learned new recipes to better incorporate the produce, and students have been taking notice how much better local food can taste.
"As time goes on, we're seeing that students are more accepting of (local food), and may even prefer it in some instances," McCoy said.
McCoy said one main staple, meat, is not produced in large enough quantities locally to be bought by the school board. Citing the limited production in all produce, McCoy said while Farm to School will likely never phase out foods from outside providers, she hopes farmers will see the program expand and grow more, particularly winter crops and fruit.
"I just hope it expands and we can purchase more fresh foods," McCoy said. "And that farmers will continue to grow foods for us to buy."
One of Cabell County's top sellers in the Farm to School program is a recent Cabell Midland graduate, Zachary Call. With around 100 acres near Milton and in nearby Mason County, the 2015 graduate raises lettuce, corn and eggs, and was mentioned by McCoy as one of the program's most loyal participants.
Growing produce for just over three years, Call, 19, of Milton, now brings in over $1,000 each month by selling to the school board. Call said the Farm to School program is "magnificent," and that the school board has been great to work with as he works to expand farming into a living.
Because of the school board's huge demand for food, Call said there's great peace of mind in knowing that if he plants it, they'll buy it.
"It's almost a sure-fire way to sell because they're always going to need it," Call said. "That's a really big relief on the farmer's part."
Call noted that produce prices in the public market can change dramatically week by week, and the school board's set prices are what helps local farmers the most.
"What's really nice about the school board is, in the produce market, the price is going to fluctuate," Call said. "The school board does not have as much fluctuation on the price."
Cabell County Schools is now taking applications from more local farmers to participate in its Farm to School program.
Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.