Many rural schools lack access to local food—this southwest Virginia program is working to change that
In the lunch line at the Van Pelt elementary school in Bristol, students choose which foods to eat.
Third grader Kayleigh wears rainbow colored glasses and selects a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, salad and applesauce.
She said she’s going to eat her salad first. “Because salad makes you grow and it’s healthy for you,” Kayleigh said.
Her classmate Campbell chooses the salad too, as well as tacos. “I love their fruits and vegetables, they’re really good here. They’re always like so fresh tasting. They’re so good,” Campbell said as she headed back to her classroom to eat.
The salad is made with local tomatoes and cucumbers. The tacos were made with beef from a farm in Russell County.
These local foods came to the school through a collaboration, spearheaded by the Southwest Virginia Coalition to Address Hunger Free Children. Groups across the region, including Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), the state Department of Education (VDOE), and Feeding Southwest Virginia are all partners. The program began in 2021 to connect local food to schools and feeding sites along the I-81 corridor and is one of a number of farm to school projects across Virginia, called Fresh Local Foods for Children.
Southwest Virginia also receives USDA funds through VDOE to assist with farm to school. In 2022, over $160,000 was awarded to the southwest Virginia project to build on the work they started last year.
Schools across the state spend about $12 million purchasing food that’s grown in Virginia, or nearby states, according to numbers from 2021. That’s a small percentage of the overall money that’s spent on food for schools in the state, at least $300 million.
Officials say they want to double the amount they spend buying local foods by 2026. It’s part of a national push to help kids eat healthier by introducing them to more fruits and veggies.
President Biden recently announced he wants to end childhood hunger in the U.S. by 2030, and increase access to nutritious foods. One of the strategies he announced is to provide more federal funding for schools who buy locally sourced fruits and veggies.
Kids in Bristol have been eating local meat and produce since the 1990s. The school district’s nutritionist, Kathy Hicks, says their schools spend about $30,000 thousand annually on local foods.
“With the local they don’t have to pick it green, because there’s not a time lag,” said Hicks. “So the produce can be much tastier. And if it’s tastier then the students will eat it more. Which means they receive more nutrients because they’re eating it more.”
Hicks said it can sometimes be a challenge to get kids to try new foods, especially because so many of them aren’t exposed to fresh foods at home.
“We immediately trying to teach them that there’s more to eat than chicken nuggets or cheeseburgers.”
She tells her cafeteria workers to be patient, keep introducing new foods, because it can take many tries for kids to like a new flavor or texture.
Back in the cafeteria line, Kayleigh had some advice for kids who aren’t sure they want to give veggies a chance. “You could, try it, and actually like it. And if you don’t like it, you just tell your teacher, and if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat it,” Kayleigh suggested.
Teachers allow the kids to discretely spit food out into a napkin and throw it away if they don’t like it. This helps them be more willing to try new foods, said Hicks.
Last school year, the ASD project began selling to schools along I-81, but they ran into challenges as they began expanding into Buchanan, Tazewell, Wise, Russell, and Dickenson. In many of these rural, mountainous areas, deliveries between schools can take as much as six hours, said Brittany Woodby, who works with ASD on the logistical details of their farm to school program.
“In a few years, farm to school will be a lot more accessible to a lot of the cafeteria staff that would not have access otherwise,” Woodby said.
She said they’re working to find ways to get more food delivered to rural areas, and to change how fruits and veggies are processed. Last year, the main fall crop was butternut squash. They learned that cafeteria workers don’t have time to hand cut all that squash. Normally with larger distributing companies, that type of processing is normally done before the food arrives at the school. ASD is working to develop a processing center in Duffield, so the foods are easier for school cooks to use.
Many of the vegetables being served on this day were grown on a farm in Lee County, 65 miles away. The farmer, Adam Pendleton, grows all his produce in the fields behind his home.
“To be able to sell that and then step back, and really think about how many people across the school system, how many people has eaten something that was grown on your personal farm, how many people you fed, it’s a pretty good feeling,” said Pendleton.
He hopes that maybe one day farming will pay all his bills. For now he works a day job with ASD, helping the organization sell local food to grocery stores and schools.
His family once had a dairy on this land and grew tobacco, till both industries declined. Most of the people he went to high school with moved away, but he decided to stay and revive his family’s farm.
“I would work till the day I died and never feel like I worked a day. So in my mind I was like, why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t I try to do this?”
But there are logistical challenges to connecting farmers with cafeterias, particularly for rural school districts, like many in southwest Virginia, where deliveries between schools can take as much as six hours.
First, ASD also needs to purchase a new truck to make these deliveries into deeper southwest Virginia, but supply chain issues have made the search a little challenging. They hope to buy a truck as soon as possible so they can begin deliveries to more school systems this winter.