County food service directors from five surrounding counties gathered at Tucker County High School recently to see firsthand the ways the Tucker County vo-ag and ProStart programs are partnering to grow and preserve fresh produce.
ProStart is the leading secondary education culinary program in the country, and Tucker County has the most ProStart students of any West Virginia school.
The idea is, if ProStart students can handle some of the upfront work associated with fresh fruits and vegetables, school cafeteria personnel will be able to utilize more local produce in their Farm To School programs.
Besides simply demonstrating what individual counties can do, the meeting was the first step in what hopefully will become a regional approach to utilizing local foods in schools, both as a source of nutritious food, and as a practical career education opportunity for students.
"You don't always see many instances of counties working together," said Dr. Allen Arnold, director of the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, a member-organization in the West Virginia Farm To School Community Development Group. "But what we've seen is that the chef teacher here is saying 'I'm producing these kinds of things here and I could buy some of my ingredients from neighboring counties and I could sell my value-added products that we're producing over in your county.'"
"It's really building a sense of a regional food system so that Farm To School is still local, but at the same time, the amount that a school could buy is enlarged tremendously because you have that much larger a base," said Arnold.
"What we're looking to do here is give a broader context - a deeper context - to what our culinary students are learning," said Donna Wilkes, coordinator of Hospitality and Tourism programs for the West Virginia Department of Education's (WVDE) Office of Career and Technical Instruction.
"We're beginning to see it as more than just being able to move into one part of the industry - [we're] seeing it as part of the community ... something our students can begin to look at, not just as careers, but as an entrepreneurial opportunity as well."
There is a tremendous opportunity for food production and processing in West Virginia, according to West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick.
"This is a perfect example of my vision of agriculture in our state: West Virginians growing food to be processed by West Virginians for West Virginians," said Helmick.
"I strongly encourage other school systems to look into this model, which proves that with a little ingenuity and the willingness to try something different, we can accomplish so many good things for our state."
Participants toured the Tucker County greenhouse, high tunnel and ProStart kitchen, enjoyed a locally sourced lunch, and had the chance to use the school's vacuum sealer machine. Chef Brian Covell's ProStart program manufactured 200 canned products and processed 1,000 pounds of vegetables in its first year. He said he expects those numbers to increase dramatically next year.