By Olivia Wein, NFSN Programs and Policy Intern

The landscape of food and education changed quickly when COVID-19 became an inextricable part of everyone’s lives. Communities had to shift and make drastic changes as schools and businesses closed their doors. In order to ensure children had continued access to meals, stakeholders had to rapidly and creatively adjust to the new circumstances. With the help of strong community partnerships, innovation and willingness to collaborate from the state to the local level, communities in West Virginia have made tremendous headway in not only continuing to provide meals for children across the state, but also maintaining markets for farmers, and supporting food businesses in their communities. Sector lines have started to blur as communities come together to build and leverage resiliency in their local food system.  

When businesses and schools started closing, West Virginia’s Office of Child Nutrition partnered with communities to establish 505 feeding sites across the state. The strong partnerships rooted in these communities made it possible for children and families to access bagged lunches from a variety of locations. Not only did the Office of Child Nutrition want to ensure kids were being fed, but that they maintained highly nutritious meals while continuing to source locally from producers during the pandemic.

Setting up for distribution at Madison Elementary School. Photo credit: Grow Ohio Valley

Producers sent out weekly updates of local items that were available and the Office of Child Nutrition supported coordinated delivery of those items to regional distribution sites so the products could make their way to grab and go meals. In the beginning weeks, it took a period of trial and error in order to assess the best methods of creating grab-n-go style meals while incorporating local ingredients that would withstand the holding conditions during distributions. With time and patient collaboration, school districts and producers were able to successfully meet the goals of feeding kids with local products.

While the state worked on broader distribution, local partners were building innovative collaborations and leveraging community resources, creativity, and talent to further support community members. Grow Ohio Valley (GrowOV), a community-based non-profit working to advance economic prosperity, improved health, and a better environment, partnered with West Virginia Northern Community College (WVNCC), Ohio County Schools, and local chefs to launch the Restaurant-to-School program in early weeks of the pandemic.

Staff from Sarah's on Main, local eatery in Wheeling, WV preparing meals in WV Northern Community College teaching kitchen. Photo credit: Grow Ohio Valley

The program utilized WVNCC kitchen space and equipment to allow chefs and staff from local restaurants to create meals to distribute to Ohio County students. This innovative partnership not only helped to provide local kids with nutritious meals, but also helped support local restaurants by keeping employees paid. About 75% of each meal was paid for with funding from USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), with remaining costs covered by other community partnerships. Restaurant owners have been busy preparing meals using locally-sourced fruits and vegetables and delivering meals to school sites for daily distribution. In the last few weeks, two more counties have teamed up with local restaurants to build out similar models.

As schools shift to summer feeding programs, West Virginia will continue to build on these solid partnerships and lessons learned in establishing these programs. The Office of Child Nutrition will continue to encourage and facilitate counties in maintaining relationships with local producers and implementing creative community based opportunities to reach children and families with local food. This includes providing funding to feature local products in grab and go “farmers market bags” to supplement grab and go summer meals. West Virginia has seen great program and partnership successes that will continue through the summer months. For example, two counties had partnered with a closed state park (Cacapon State Park) as a location for food distribution sites and other counties are launching on-site farmers markets at their summer feeding sites. By building on strong existing cross-sector relationships and leveraging resources and talent, from the state to the local level, West Virginia children, families, producers, and food businesses are benefiting in the immediacy while building long-term resilience in local community food systems.