Good For Our Farms, Good For Our People
Senate Bill 383: The Healthy Food Crop Block Grant
For the past couple of years, local farms and schools around West Virginia have been teaming up for the Farm to School initiative. This initiative aims to provide fresh and local produce for student’s lunches. However, with no statewide network for the program, farmers must work with the schools to create a communications and logistics network in order to meet the food demands of the schools in their counties.
This need led to the creation of our specialty crop farm co-op, Preston Growers. Since 2014 we have been farming with the passion and commitment to provide local schools with high quality and healthy food through Farm to School program. Since then we have been working relentlessly to see this vision come to life across Preston county.
This included starting the Chopped Lettuce Program, which offers properly washed and prepared lettuce to schools that lacked the resources to do so. Though this program has been a great success year-round, there is still a major need for nutritious fruits and vegetables. Growing the volume needed for the county, however, means high up-front costs for our Preston County farmers.
Senate Bill 383 Healthy Food Block Grant (SB 383) was recently introduced to the West Virginia legislature. This grant would provide much-needed funding for current farmers to increase and expand their crop production. In a study conducted by the WV Food Justice Lab, it was reported that self-defined full-time specialty food crop farmers earned a gross revenue of less than $38,000 a year. This income allows little room to expand production capability which comes with increased risk. For example, farmers can’t risk increasing labor-time and operating costs to expand their production on crops when one bad storm could wipe out the harvest.
SB 383 Healthy Food Block Grant (SB 383) would also incentivize new farmers to join the network. New farmers, having fewer resources to risks, are hesitant to enter a market that is unfamiliar. The SB 383 would serve as a catalyst for the new farmer’s production and involvement in the community.
The SB 383 grant is vital to keep the vision of a sustainable and growing network moving forward. Incentives for increased crop production and new farmers joining forces would allow for us to provide the quantity of fresh and locally produced food required by our schools on a more regular basis. Currently, when we don’t have a consistent and predictable supply, schools are driven to order from large scale suppliers, often compromising quality and freshness. These external contracts also reduce the economic return to our farmers and suppliers.
When the quality, freshness, and locality are lost, students take note. One of our local farmer’s grandson’s recalls passing on a fresh juicy strawberry at lunch, thinking they were the normal, tasteless ones from a mass supplier. Students have also noted that they look forward to our sweet corn because it is the best they have ever had. Although both the schools and the students love the quality of our produce, large quantity wins over when it’s time to order.
When schools do order from the co-op, the farmer is responsible for the delivery. Though we do work together to sort through logistics, a delivery can mean over 100 miles of driving and a day of work away from the farm. Our hope is that this grant and the added farmers it will attract will help with the transportation challenges we currently work around.
Another challenge our co-op faces is managing the time-lapse between crop harvest and the school year. For instance, vegetables, like tomatoes and peppers are in season when school is out of session. These vegetables are packed with essential nutrients that students need, but storing them for the school year requires additional storage and increased costs. Extra funds would help us pay for a storage building so we can provide these vegetables and ensure that students are getting the nutrients they need throughout the year.
The Farm to School program is at the heart of our co-op and is something we are eager to continue being a part of as it grows. Although it does come with challenges, grants like the SB 383 Healthy Food Block Grant, help us overcome those obstacles. Whether, it’s a current farmer growing more variety, or a new farmer adding to our efforts, the grant would lead to many more opportunities that would have a lasting impact on the future of Preston County and West Virginia.
Joyce Shafer is owner/operator of Shafer Heritage Farm and Darla Stemple is co-owner/operator of Vested Heirs Farm, both in Preston County, WV. Together their farms make up 2 of 9 member farms in the Preston Growers Co-op.