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West Virginians Chart "Road Map" to Strengthen Food Economy

Over 100 West Virginians—from farmers, to food business owners, technical assistance providers, dieticians, and young future farmers—converged on January 23, to chart a course for bringing more local food from farm to table. The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition and partners co-hosted the “Road Map for the Food Economy” daylong workshop in Bridgeport, WV.

“In West Virginia there has been a swell of local interest in things like producer cooperatives, farm to school programs, and other ways of selling and distributing local products that go beyond the classic farmers market model,” said Savanna Lyons, Program Manager for the WV Food & Farm Coalition (WVFFC).

“There’s also interest in finding ways of using local food production to improve West Virginians’ access to healthy food, whether by taking SNAP (food stamps) at farmers markets, starting community gardens, or opening outlets in places that lack a grocery store.”

“I think Monday’s workshop was a unique next step because people from all sectors of the economy sat down and actually planned what is needed to take local food to the next level. Several people told me how helpful it was just getting to know the person sitting next to them – that farmer, banker or food bank director whose perspective was so different from theirs, but who also valued West Virginia agriculture,” she said.

At the workshop, citizens from across the state worked in groups to set goals and create an action plan for West Virginia’s food system, in four key areas: Youth and the Next Generation of Farmers, Supporting Farmer Viability and Profitability, Improving Access to Healthy Food, and Improving School & Institutional Food.

In each of these areas, West Virginia has already made significant strides—and participants were treated to a series of video-slideshows highlighting innovative local food projects from across the state. For example, one slideshow covered the the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, which sources local food and finances its special purchases through a waste reduction program. All seven Fresh Ideas in Action videos are posted on YouTube and can be accessed via WVFFC’s website.

With successes such as the Martinsburg VA center as a guide, participants helped create a clearer “road map” for West Virginia’s food system goals by targeting priority action items and creating a plan to measure success. Groups proposed actions such as creating farmer mentoring networks and providing more resources for young entrepreneurs, According to Mike Kwasniewski, a farmer from Randolph County, the event played a key role in moving discussions on local food forward.

“It’s getting to the point where it feels like it’s becoming refined into action plans, into concrete projects we can realize,” he said.

Based on the targeted action items, participants with vested interest in specific projects also began to form practical working groups to move forward on concrete plans, such as creating marketing cooperatives. Group members will draw from their collective knowledge and experience to problem-solve challenges together, to benefit their own work while addressing needs of West Virginia as a whole. A coalition of partner agencies will support the groups with communication resources and web tools, with funding provided through WVFFC and partners.

The event marks an important step in completing the West Virginia Food Charter, following a series of regional roundtables last spring. The Food Charter will provide a road map for action to help focus, measure and celebrate the state’s progress towards a stronger local food economy.

Partners in planning and executing this event include WVU Extension Service and its WV Small Farm Center the Mid Ohio Health Department; Change the Future WV; the WV Office of Healthy Lifestyles; the Center for Economic Options; WV State University Extension Service; the WV Department of Agriculture; the WV Department of Education; and the WV Community Development Hub.

Cindy Martel, Marketing Specialist for the WV Department of Agriculture, explained that the event helped her gauge specific needs for WVDA services, such as providing more business training. Martel pointed to a long list of notes she’d taken during the sessions, to bring back to her co-workers.

“We’re getting a look at the landscape of the different needs people have,” she said. “We’re using this as a litmus test for what we can be working on.”

Event sponsors included the WV Office of Healthy Lifestyles; Change the Future WV / Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department; BB&T; Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation; WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and the blue moon fund.

Lyons emphasized out the enormous economic and health benefit that this kind of work could bring to West Virginia.

“Recent studies show that we have more than enough farm land to meet all of West Virginians’ seasonal demands for produce,” she said. “A bigger local farm economy could also create jobs in other sectors like processing and distribution. Farming is a part of our heritage and there is a big opportunity there, but to take advantage of it we will need to rebuild our system for getting local food to people. We will need to work together.”

For more information about the Food Charter and WVFFC, visit http://wvhub.org/foodandfarmcoalition or contact Savanna Lyons at s.lyons@wvhub.org or (304) 673-0053.

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