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Final Regional Roundtables Lay Groundwork for Stronger WV Food System

At the final series of local foods regional roundtables last week, the ideas for strengthening West Virginia’s food systems spilled out in abundance – an incubator for new farming operations, for example, that would offer technical assistance for business planning and loans, and even a year-round farmers market that would house a commercial kitchen and other key pieces of infrastructure.

The three meetings last week in Berkeley Springs, Phillipi, and Charleston drew a diverse mix of approximately 120 residents involved in West Virginia’s food system, from high school students to small-scale farmers, restaurant owners, government representatives, teachers, economic developers, dieticians, and interested consumers.

“We’re really proud of the involvement of various groups and individuals…It was just a really well-rounded group,” Patti Miller, co-owner of restaurant Panorama at the Peak, which serves locally-source food and hosted the Berkeley Springs roundtable.

Miller explained that the roundtable allowed the wide range of participants to find strong common ground.

“It was structured in a way that showed that, from these varied backgrounds, how in-sync everybody is on the long-range target – on its simplest level, getting more food to the West Virginia Fork,” she said.

The first series of roundtables, held in Wheeling, Hico, and Parkersburg, also attracted over 100 participants.

The roundtables are laying the groundwork for long-term plans for a stronger farm economy and more fresh produce affordable for all West Virginians. By the end of a four-part process, the ideas gathered from community input will be shaped into a West Virginia Food Charter that outlines a vision for a healthy food system.

“All over the state, farmers, business owners and community leaders are coming up with great ideas for how to build our food economy and improve access to healthy food. They are also identifying some challenges,” said Savanna Lyons, Program Manager of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, program of the West Virginia Community Development Hub which is providing logistical legwork for the roundtables.

“The roundtables are an opportunity to get all of those thoughts into the same place so that we can problem-solve together, and then figure out what our statewide action items need to be.”

Lyons and the WV Food and Farm Coalition organized the roundtables in close partnership WVU Extension Service, the WV Department of Education, Rural Support Partners, the WV Community Development Hub, as well as local partners including WesMonTy Resource Conservation and Development, local FFA groups, Local Economy Network, and others.

Tom McConnell of the West Virginia Small Farm Center at WVU Extension Service, who has worked for 25 years in support of small West Virginia farmers, attended four of the six roundtables. He described the series of roundtables as a landmark event.

“[It was the] first time a regional group as a group took the time to ponder their food system future. The diversity added richness and a more humanitarian approach to solving a regional food system challenge,” he said.

“This was the first time many players, from a personal aspect, of the food system got to see and hear those from another perspective. They learned first hand how they might fit into the bigger picture. For many, this was their first exercise in community. Maybe this is more important than the individual concerns, as a community can support and educate its members on an ongoing process and be able to share in solutions to problems and share opportunities.”

Along with the Small Farm Center, local extension agents in each region brought considerable energy to the Regional Roundtable series by conducting farmer outreach in their counties, facilitating small group discussions, and assisting with meeting logistics.

Food donors for the events include Barbour County FFA, Local Economy Network, Change the Future WV / Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, Northern Community and Technical College and Gourmet on the Gorge Catering. Funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation made the series possible, and Thomas Watson of Rural Support Partners provided facilitation.

Common, key themes emerged at the breakout sessions: improving the business viability of local farm operations; strategic marketing, aggregation, and distribution of local food; improving public access to affordable healthy food; improving the quality of school food; and fostering next generation of farmers.

The discussions brought into focus an important question: How can West Virginia support its farmers and encourage new ones, while making healthy food available for every income level?

“That question is one of the reasons why we need to have these forums,” said Lyons. “The answer is obviously not easy, because if it were easy we’d be doing it. We’re going to have to leverage federal money for food assistance and business development, leverage state money that funds school lunches, leverage sweat equity, and eliminate inefficiencies in the system that takes products farmers to consumers. These two groups of people are too disconnected from each other.”

“We have to have conversations between people who don’t usually talk to each other, to figure out how to solve these issues.”

Roundtable participants – and all West Virginians – will soon get a chance to explore these ideas further. The roundtable meetings mark the first phase of the four-phase process to create the West Virginia Food Charter. The charter will use widespread public input, much of it from the roundtable discussions, to set goals for West Virginia’s food system, including specific statewide and local policies.

After Phase One’s Regional Roundtables, Phase Two will target the five to six issues that emerge as most important to citizens. West Virginians will have the chance to join working groups will explore those issues.

In Phase Three, the working groups’ recommendations will create the West Virginia Food Charter, which the public can read and offer feedback. The finalized charter will be launched to media and introduced to WV decision-makers and back to communities in Phase Four. Local organizations and governments will be invited to sign on.

While the Phase Two will not begin until the fall (to allow farmers to focus on their fields through the summer), Lyons said that the Food Charter is just one small part of an ongoing process to create more statewide collaboration on developing West Virginia’s food economy. She emphasized that many roundtable participants are already doing this work and that in many cases the roundtable discussions have simply added momentum to community efforts or helped farmers to broader their business network.

“Something that came through loud and clear to me was how much people feel they need [to pursue this work], and don’t quite have the tools to do it themselves,” Lyons said, reflecting on the roundtables. “It was about the spirit of collaborating, and working with each other instead of against each other – and the need to find the advantages of working with each other. The Food Charter is a good excuse to do that. I think it will help lead to more concrete economic development projects.”

Miller described a powerful sense of purpose and excitement driving the project forward.

“I’ve been operating in this area in detail for seven years, and I’ve never seen anything as hopeful as this program come along,” she said. “I have great faith in what it can do. I’ve never seen anything with even a fraction of this potential.

For more information on the roundtables and the West Virginia Food Charter, visit http://www.wvhub.org/wvffc/west-virginia-food-charter.

Read some of the fantastic media coverage from:  The Charleston Gazette, the State Journal (Phillipi roundtable), CBS News (Phillipi), Beckley Register-Herald (Hico roundtable), The Journal (Berkeley Springs roundtable), Sustainable Shepherdstown (also Berkeley Springs roundtable), the Parkersburg News and Sentinel, and the WVU Small Farm Center (Wheeling roundtable).

Photos from Charleston and Hico Roundtables: