INDIANA, Pa. — A group of Indiana County 4-H’ers wants to make “PA Preferred” foods the basis of a meal subscription program.

The four students are taking part in a competition, the second annual Pennsylvania Science of Agriculture event, to be held June 19-21 in State College.

Sixth-grader John Bruner, ninth-graders Ryan Fabin and Elizabeth Bruner, and 10th-grader Andrea Davis have been working on the idea since January along with their leaders.

Some of the group members took part in a regional event April 13 in State College where they presented their plan and received feedback from a panel of judges to prepare for the June state competition.

Elizabeth said the group brainstormed earlier this year to come up with a plan that would better incorporate agriculture into daily lifestyles.

They decided on a meal subscription box. In this service, individuals and families can subscribe to having meals, complete with ingredients and recipes, delivered to their doorstep — a program that is becoming more and more popular across the U.S.

The unique plan that the 4-H team came up with is that every food item in the subscription service must be produced or made in Pennsylvania.

According to the PA Preferred website, the program is a label and agricultural marketing program launched by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture “to identify and promote food and agricultural products grown, produced or processed in Pennsylvania.”

The 4-H team members researched the PA Preferred list, which includes 2,500 items grown in Pennsylvania, to produce items even beyond food.

John, who admitted he was unaware of the PA Preferred program at first, said the Pennsylvania food idea came as a result of realizing that many meal subscription services had items delivered to Pennsylvania homes from Florida, California and other states.

“We want people to eat more Pennsylvania-grown foods,” John said.

“It’s also about supporting our local economy,” Andrea said.

The group is also adding the opportunity for snack box subscriptions, which will include Pennsylvania-made snacks such as Utz and Snyder’s items.

Each meal subscription box will include all necessary ingredients for a meal, whether it be for two people or more.

“It will have all of the main ingredients,” Elizabeth said, with the exception of essential items on hand in most kitchens, like flour and oils. The kit could include Pennsylvania-grown beef, chicken or pork, produce, eggs and dairy items.

Each box will also include educational tools, said 4-H leader Carol Sperman. A booklet on Pennsylvania Produce, a PA Preferred recipe book for additional meal ideas, and a brochure promoting dairy in Pennsylvania will be neatly placed inside.

Another educational page included inside is a fact sheet based on the students’ research.

“We did research on where Pennsylvania ranks in agriculture commodities,” John said.

Findings include that Pennsylvania ranked number one in mushroom production in the United States, third in peaches, fourth in apples, eggs and grapes, sixth in maple syrup, and seventh in pumpkins and dairy products. This information was collected from the USDA website and Penn State.

The name of the subscription box will be “Keystone Clover Kitchen” with a 4-H clover on the label.

Packaging will include appropriate materials such as aluminum foil to keep items cold.

The students also conducted a survey in advance to see if a subscription like this could be beneficial in their area.

They posted questions on their Indiana County 4-H Facebook page, and presented surveys to visitors at some of their public events.

The questions included this one: “Are you familiar with PA Preferred products?”

The results showed that 43% were familiar with PA Preferred, while 57% were not.

The survey also asked “Do you prefer your foods to be grown in Pennsylvania?”

Eighty percent of people polled said they prefer Pennsylvania-grown food.

Ninety-two percent of those polled said they were concerned about how their food is grown.

And 83% said they have never used a meal subscription service.

Sperman said part of the survey asked individuals what food items they knew were raised or grown in Pennsylvania.

“A lot of people thought we grew corn,” she said, “which is interesting. Many must be assuming field corn is corn that we eat.”

Sperman and 4-H leader Connie Bruner also said the students researched pricing of the meal subscriptions, including how much it will cost to obtain the items and what to charge customers.

Those numbers are still being examined at this point. Sperman said she looked at other meal subscription programs, which seemed to be a bit pricey. However, she feels the PA Preferred box could be comparable in price.

The target group for meal subscriptions seems to be those under age 45, Andrea said.

To get the project to be operational, a great deal of work and funding will need done, Sperman said.

The first step is to get the stamp of approval from the event in State College.

Eleven teams from across the state with three to four 4-H members will compete with the Indiana County group.

There are categories in which the groups will first compete based on their project topic. Examples of these themes include: relationships between agriculture and technology; a focus on livestock; and relationships between agriculture and lifestyle (the pillar that the Indiana County students are addressing).

Elizabeth said the lifestyle pillar was chosen because eating choices may be dependent on one’s lifestyle.

“How you eat, and what you eat, is a lifestyle decision,” she said.

As a group wins each category, the competition eventually narrows down to first, second and third place overall for the entire event.

Each team must also demonstrate how they have presented their ideas to the public via media and presentations.

Teams also have mentors who give them tips during their researching and planning processes. The Indiana County team benefited from feedback from a local meat producer, a representative from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania small-business development office, and sponsors Ken and Beth Marshall, horticulture producers in their area.

Teams that place first earn a scholarship of $1,000 per student, to be used in a post-secondary education. Second place guarantees a $750 scholarship, and third place earns a $500 scholarship.

Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer in central Pennsylvania.