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Up a small set of stairs and to the left sits the cafeteria at McKinley Middle School, but you don’t need the secretary’s directions to find it. At lunch time, you can hear the chatter of students as soon as you walk in the school’s front door.
McKinley houses about 350 6-8 graders who, in 20 minute shifts of about 50 or so, file into the small cafeteria, fill their trays and sit down at tables to eat.
“I’m usually scared of the school food,” said eighth-grader Mickala Wilkinson.
Reviews that are not so uncommon from your average middle school student about what’s being served in their cafeterias, but this lunch was slightly different.
“I like the apples. They actually have flavor to them,” Mickala said about halfway through her lunch.
“Oh, it’s wonderful,” said sixth-grader Chase Casto. “It’s kind of nice to have freshly grown stuff from around St. Albans.”
Chase sat with his classmates and enjoyed a cheeseburger on a whole wheat bun- wheat that was grown in Preston County, along with apples from Berkeley County, lettuce from Putnam, ice cream from Kanawha and brussel sprouts from Upshur County.
Students at McKinley Middle weren’t just eating their normal Wednesday afternoon lunch. They were eating a lunch prepared from scratch with West Virginia products as a part of the state Department of Education’s Farm to School program.
“We started this initiative about three years ago,” said Executive Director of the Office of Child Nutrition Richard Goff, “where we showcase local growers, local producers and today’s menu highlighted just locally sourced food grown here in West Virginia.”
The program is similar to the Farm to Table movement becoming popular across the country. It’s about supporting local producers and providing them a stable market to sell their products, and county school systems are a very stable market.
In the last school year, more than $350,000 was spent on local products used in schools in 30 counties across the state.
Diane Miller, the child nutrition director for Kanawha County Schools and organizer of the McKinley event, said the goal is to get that number to grow.
“Farm to School for me is not just a one time event,” Miller said. “What I want to do is find longevity of the program so that I can say every single day at every single school in Kanawha, 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.”
Finding the farmers seems to be the biggest challenge, but Miller said there’s an even bigger reward. Outside of the help the school systems can bring to the local economy, students are eating fresher, healthier foods and, perhaps most importantly, liking them.
“The amount of work was amazing, but today you reap the benefits of it. To see these kids’ trays and to see these kids happy and just kind of excited about their lunch,” Miller said.
As for Chase, he likes the idea of tasting new foods.
Potato salad and all, Chase and the kids of McKinley Middle seemed satisfied as they emptied their trays and returned to class, as Diane Miller said, with bellies fed and ready to learn.