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Helmick wants schools to purchase more homegrown food

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The Associated Press

CHARLESTON — Food costs have been eating the Department of Education’s lunch for years because almost all of the food purchased for schools comes from out of state.

The Commissioner of Agriculture wants to change that, and he thinks he can.

Walt Helmick told the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development that West Virginia grows $663 million in farm products, but consumes upwards of $7 billion. The biggest customer is the school system at $100 million, he added.

“We want West Virginians spending their tax money on West Virginia products,” Helmick continued.

The Deptartment of Education has only two requirements for the switch to state products, he said: comparable in price and comparable in quality.

The commissioner said some state farmers are making a profit on what they grow, but without access to the school system, they don’t have much incentive to increase their yields.

He pointed out a Preston County farmer who grew 18 acres of potatoes and sold them at considerable profit. When Helmick asked him why he didn’t grow 36 acres of potatoes, the farmer replied that he could sell only 18.

“We have to provide incentive,” Helmick said.

Helmick said the new Agriculture School at West Virginia University will help the development of state food products, perhaps changing those attitudes about farming.