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Farm to table aims to reach into schools

SoVaNow.com / December 24, 2018
The Southern Virginia Food Hub, a collective of over 110 small farmers and artisan food producers in Southside Virginia, is hoping to increase the amount of locally produced food that Mecklenburg and Greenville County schools serve to their students.

The producer alliance is aiming to supply school cafeterias through the USDA Farm to School program while also educating students about the importance of farming.

Brodnax-area farmer Ann Taylor-Wright, who spearheaded development of the Southern Virginia Food Hub (SVFH), said the non-profit group is seeking a planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a strategy to increase student awareness and consumption of local foods.

Taylor-Wright said the program is also in line with the mission of the SVFH, which is to create “successful agribusinesses in the community while preserving the heritage of family farms and local cuisine.”

The SVFH has not received official word that the grant has been awarded, but Taylor-Wright said she’s confident that USDA will support their project. Once the money is received, she plans to work with teachers, farmers, students and citizen volunteers to create a farm-to-school program for Greenville and Mecklenburg counties.

“A key component to achieving this mission is to involve area youth and instill in them the value of locally grown/produced foods,” said Taylor-Wright, which is why she sees the farm to school program as more than a means to increase the use of local foods in school meal production. It’s an opportunity to teach students about agriculture — how foods are grown, harvested, raised, caught, or processed locally, and when those foods are available.

This is one of the many ways Taylor-Wright envisions that the SVFH can work with school divisions to promote agriculture education.

In October she spoke to members of the Mecklenburg County School Board about her talks with CTE Coordinator Gary Cifers to use SVFH facilities for culinary arts classes, meal preparation, and marketing programs for students.

The $7.5 million farm to school grant program was created in 2015, part of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act to distribute grant funding to be used for training, supporting operations, planning, purchasing equipment, developing or expanding school gardens, developing partnerships, and working with communities looking to incorporate local products into the school meal programs, and integrating agricultural education into the classroom.

This year, the Farm to School Grant program funded 73 grants serving more than 6,006 schools and 2.8 million students, nearly 66 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Two schools in Virginia qualified for the grant for the 2018/2019 school year.

Giles County Public Schools received $53,212 to install two high tunnels to extend the growing season in the area. The Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton received $76,359 for a program to increase student access to local foods using the school’s three-acre education farm, raised bed garden, small greenhouse/workspace, sensory garden, and youth garden business.

Taylor-Wright expects the SVFH and Mecklenburg and Greenville school divisions to be on that list of school divisions receiving grant funding for the 2019/2020 school year.

The idea for the food hub began five years ago when Taylor-Wright and her husband were selling their farm-produced meats at local farmers markets. Speaking with other producers, she realized there was a need for a centralized market that is more than a farmer’s market for selling locally-grown foodstuffs.

What was needed, she determined, was a place where farmers could produce and sell their value-added products made from locally sourced food. Thus, she began the planning process.

During planning, Taylor-Wright learned for the first time that the USDA considers Southside Virginia a food desert despite the number of local farmers who grow fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods. She said the designation is largely due to a lack of grocery stores and farmers markets in the area.

With funding nearly complete — Taylor-Wright has received a number of grants to fund the project — she is about to realize her dream for the SVFHL: the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market, a brick and mortar retail operation, which has a planned opening of June 2019 in the Town of South Hill.

The market will be housed in the building that once operated as the Farmer’s Bakers Market at the corner of Danville Street and Mecklenburg Avenue, next to the Colonial Center. In addition to the retail operation, the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market will be an integral part of the farm to school program because of its classroom space and commercial kitchen where farmers, students, and artisans can turn their produce, dairy and meats into valued-added products — breads, pastas, cheeses, butter, salsas and spaghetti sauce to name a few.

She said while the primary goal of the Maker’s Market is to increase profits for local small farmers and food artisans, the project also seeks to make “Southern Virginia” synonymous with good food and to instill a love of local healthy eating among children.

As for the educational tie-in — beyond using local foods to produce school meals — Taylor-Wright envisions culinary arts classes where students can cook and serve meals at the market, and where outside food producers purchase produce grown at the school for use in their own dishes.

When Taylor-Wright began planning for the SVFH and Maker’s Market, she anticipated 75 farmers signing on to be part of the food hub. Currently, the Southern Virginia Maker’s Market has 110 farmers from eight counties who will be selling and producing items at the site.

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