On a recent Monday, students at James Monroe High School in Monroe County eat french bread pizza, corn, beans and mixed fruit. They also have three, locally sourced salad options to choose from: a spinach salad with bright red cherry tomatoes, a pre-made salad or a make-you-own salad bar.
"We hear that these foods look so much better, put together," said Kimberly Gusler, the high school's head cook. She said that since the school began using local salad greens and vegetables and fruits when available, students appear to be eating more of them.
"They love the way the salads look.”
James Monroe is one of a handful of schools in West Virginia participating in the Farm to School program that helps get local food into schools and encourages schools to participate in agricultural activities.
A new bill passed by the West Virginia Legislature this year, will expand the use of local foods to all of the state's schools and state-led institutions. HB 2396, also called the West Virginia Fresh Food Act, requires beginning July 1, 2019, all state-funded institutions to purchase a minimum of 5 percent of fresh produce, meat and poultry products from West Virginia producers.
The bill's text states the idea behind the legislation is to support West Virginia farmers and allow them to expand, as well as boost access to healthy, fresh food.
By creating a built-in demand by state-led institutions and schools, which alone purchase $100 million worth of food from out-of-state sources according to the West Virginia Farm Bureau, the hope is the bill will stimulate the state's agricultural economy, said Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, which supported the bill. (In the interest of transparency, we should note that the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition is a financial supporter of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.)
"This bill’s a really great way to invest in West Virginia communities, but also West Virginia agriculture and farmers," she said.
West Virginia has a rich farming culture and one of the highest concentrations of family-owned farms in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the majority of farms aren’t very big. The average farm size in West Virginia is just 157 acres, and small farm sizes and low production present challenges to both farmers seeking to make a living as well as businesses, schools and agencies that want to use locally grown food.
"In West Virginia, we often talk about there being a chicken-and-an-egg issue with with regards to agriculture," Moss said. "So we know, especially in fruits and vegetables and produce production, that we have a very low supply. And that's geography related, it's labor related, but it's also market demand related. So, farmers need a market if they're going to scale up their operation."
By creating a 5 percent purchasing demand from schools and other state-led institutions, the state is effectively creating that demand, Moss said.
Economists that study local food and agriculture have found that investment in local food systems creates an outsized impact to the local economy. It's called the "multiplier effect," and the idea is that for every $1 spent with a local farmer, that investment will come back into the community worth $1.40 to $1.80, because when local farmers have more money to spend they will do so in their communities whether it be through investment in their operations or at the local store.
"Whereas, if I'm investing $1 in a company that's not based in West Virginia, doesn't use West Virginia product, that money is just gone," Moss said. "It just leaves our communities.”
But while the West Virginia Fresh Food Act creates a new market for locally-grown food, getting that food to state institutions -- schools, colleges and prisons, etc. -- poses a challenge.
"The prices are higher, logistics are tougher, it's not what they're used to," said Fritz Boettner, the director of food systems for Turnrow Appalachian Food Collective. This food hub aggregates product from about 75 farmers across southern West Virginia and beyond, and helps get it into the hands of people, businesses and schools.
Boettner said, in his experience, everyone wants to use more locally grown food, however, sourcing can be a challenge. Most restaurants and institutions are used to using one distributor, like U.S. Foods, which provides a list of everything from apples to zucchini.
"And all we have are seasonal products," he said.
Turnrow, and other food hubs across the state, coordinate with many farmers to fill orders. He said selling to state-institutions could be very beneficial, but the success of the effort will largely be dictated by how the West Virginia Department of Agriculture writes the rules for how the bill is carried out and enforced.
It also hinges on the flexibility of state-led institutions to pay more for locally-grown food, and that is not a given.
"Everyone has to work in budgets that are given to them," Boettner adds.
West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt acknowledges local food may cost more upfront, but in an interview he said local produce is fresher, more appealing and should last longer.
"There should be less waste, they should be able to have a little bit more carryover," he said. "So in the end, it may even save money to the institutions."
He also expects it to have a postive effect on the health of West Virginians.
This month, ahead of the July 1 effective date, the Agriculture Department is expected to reach out to stakeholders affected by the bill including farmers, groups like the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition and state-led institutions to talk about what each party needs to make the bill's mandate a reality.
Leonhardt said he hopes the agency can create a master list of sorts that could help state-led institutions more easily begin purchasing local food. The Department of Agriculture is also in charge of creating enforcement policies, all without any new funding, Leonhardt said.
"This is another unfunded mandate, that we're going to gladly pick up the mantle and do it, but it's going to strain our resources a little bit," he said, adding regardless, he is excited by the possibilities. "I believe once we get all the rules in place, I think that the economic development and the return to the state through that economic development will help more than offset the cost."
Back at James Monroe High School, lunch is winding down. The self-serve salad bar looks like a tornado blew through it.
That makes head cook Kimberly Gusler smile. She said she’d love to see more schools offer locally sourced foods.
"I think it would be a great thing for them, I really do," she said. "For kids to get more nutrition through their meals because the fresh food is the best food."