By Joselyn King
WHEELING — West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt is assuring West Virginians there is an ample food supply in the state, and the food is safe to eat.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues, his agency has the responsibility of assuring safe food is getting where it needs to go.
“Most people don’t realize we deliver about 15 percent of the meals served to kids in school through the USDA commodities program,” Leonhardt said. “But those orders are changing. We’re working with the National Guard, the Department of Education and the food banks to make sure all the food is flowing.
“We have food. The challenge is to get it where we need to be, and for the schools to get it to who needs it — as well as the food pantries.”
He does not foresee an issue with food supply in the state if the crisis continues. The state is keeping its agri-businesses open, assuring a supply of meat and dairy products, Leonhardt said.
In addition, the West Virginia Department of Transportation has agreed to temporarily increase the weight limits on trucks transporting needed medical supplies and food. This is helping those items get restocked on store shelves, he said.
Where there is a shortage of demand, there tends to be hoarding, and that hasn’t had to happen with food in West Virginia, according to Leonhardt.
The question is how safe is the food being sold in West Virginia stores.
Leonhardt explained in West Virginia there are two state food inspection systems. The USDA site inspects food being shipped across state lines, while the state also has its own inspection for food. The later inspection requires the food be sold only in West Virginia.
The state facilities are getting busier right now, as a number of food chains were running short on meat, he said.
“I’m hoping at the end of this, people start realizing the value of West Virginia beef, and we start buying more beef from West Virginia than importing more beef,” Leonhardt said. “I’m looking for a silver lining in the crisis. Farmers can grow their beef out, finish it, and get a better price than if they just sold the calves to go to a feedline in the Midwest or somewhere else.”
And just how safe is the food coming to West Virginia from other states where the coronavirus is more prevalent?
“Right now I’m pretty confident we’re in good shape,” he said. “We had to curtail some of the random inspections, but we’re still going to respond if someone suspects an outbreak.”
Leonhardt believes the closer the food is grown to home “the safer the food will be.”
“That’s why the governor and I agreed to keep the farmers markets open,” he said. “We have kept all the agricultural things open to keep the food systems running.”
Guidance was provided to organizers of farmers markets, suggesting they do such things as limit the number of customers entering the market, and have farmers handle any food with gloves. Customers aren’t to touch the food.
“We put in recommended safeguards,” Leonhardt said. “These guidelines helps keep everything open.”
The State Department of Agriculture continues to work with the USDA on a regular basis, and is also coordinating with the West Virginia National Guard and the State Department of Education to distribute food items.
In addition, it is offering the services of its chemists and microbiologists to the State Department of Health and Human Services if they are needed.
Leonhardt said he is proud of the work his employees are doing during the crisis.
He also says the best thing West Virginians can do for their health at this time is to eat better.
He suggested growing a garden might even be a good way for residents to have their own needed vegetables. This also gets them outside and into the sun — a source of vitamin D.
“Good quality nutrition is important at this time,” Leonhardt said. “The more we can do to help ourselves, the healthier we are.”