Regrowing a Wasteland

West Virginia’s small towns find creative ways to grapple with a growing problem of food insecurity.

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Written and photographed by Katie Griffith

Fifteen miles on an interstate is a lot different from 15 miles in the middle of Clay or Boone county. A 10-minute drive in larger towns takes you past amenities that require a 30-minute drive out of smaller ones. In 10 minutes, ice cream softens but doesn’t melt. In 10 minutes, frozen chicken forms ice crystals but doesn’t thaw. In 30 minutes, ice cream is a swampy mess and meat gives way at the press of a finger like the flesh of a parent’s arm pulled by a hungry child anxious for lunch. When a grocer is 10 minutes away, you huff at the inconvenience of running back to the store mid-week for the much-needed green beans your spouse forgot to purchase during the weekend shopping trip. When the grocer is 30 minutes away, you do without. Continue reading

 

22% of West Virginian households struggle to afford food

In a recent report titled How Hungry is America?, The Food Research Action Council ranks West Virginia as the state with the third highest food hardship rate in 2014. 22 % of households have had difficulty accessing food over the past year in the state. The statistic is based on answers to the following questions: “Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?”

For a full review of the report click here

 

Enlarging West Virginia’s Food System Tent

According to community food security leader Mark Winne local food advocates in West Virginia need to “go bigger, bolder and more bodacious” with a “zero tolerance policy for food insecurity and hunger.”

According to community food security leader Mark Winne local food advocates in West Virginia need to “go bigger, bolder and more bodacious” with a “zero tolerance policy for food insecurity and hunger.”

Our friends at the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition hosted a webinar conference on February 17th entitled the Roadmap to the New Food Economy. The webinar brought together over 100 policy makers and local food practitioners for constructive discussion about the future of our state’s food system.  Initially scheduled for Charleston, WV, the snowy weather reworked everyone’s plans as local business owners, farmers, gardeners, food cooperative and market managers, educators, local and state representatives and extension agents all gathered around computer screens.

The keynote speaker Mark Winne, congratulated the WV Food and Farm Coalition and its allies on building a plan that has successfully lobbied on behalf of farmers and seen increased access to healthy locally produced foods in WV schools, convenience stores and seasonal farmer’s markets.  Yet, he also encouraged WV food advocates to go “bigger, bolder and more bodacious” including a “zero tolerance policy for food insecurity and hunger”.  Like many on the call, our WV FOODLINK team couldn’t agree more.

Mark argued that Americans have become numb to poverty and hunger statistics and that we have developed too high a tolerance for deep levels of income inequality in our country.  The fact that nearly 50 million Americans depend on food stamps (SNAP), that a third of children in US schools depend on free and reduced meal programs, that 30 million Americans live in food deserts, and that the US still has some of the highest overall poverty rates in the industrialized world have become, as he said, “the new normal.” Mark challenged listeners to build a road map for the West Virginian food system that includes a zero tolerance policy for food insecurity and hunger, one modeled on the very high standard set by the New Englnd Food Policy Council who set a goal for producing 50% of New England foods within the region by 2060.

Implementing such a vision, Winne asserted, would not be easy or comfortable.  Indeed it involves “bringing more people into the fold of our food system planning” and “building a larger tent.”  There will be differences of opinion between people who are involved in building a new food system and these differences might make us uncomfortable at times.  Drawing on his deep experience working in community food security coalition building Winne explained that embracing difference is vital to achieving community food security.  Winne suggested that it was critical to expand the tent to include partners not traditionally considered in local food systems planning.  We need to “work on the edges” of our existing social circles where the benefits are less predictable.  He said that we need put ourselves in less safe positions if we want to challenge the status quo.  Change will only be realized by bringing food to the center of our discussions about economic inequality, but, as Winne asserted, economic inequality needs to enter into our discussions about food.

WV FOODLINK is excited to a part of the hard work of enlarging the tent.  The WV FOODLINK research team has been in conversation with the Food and Farm Coalition for the past year, to discuss synergies between the work and expertise that each organization brings to questions of food security, food justice and food sovereignty in West Virginia. We have a mutual partner in the Appalachian Foodshed Project that is intent on fostering dialogue and building working relationships between the emerging alternative food movement in Appalachia and existing food security networks.

Our work within the emergency food network has shed light on the struggles of working families trying to close the food gap and the efforts by food assistance agencies and volunteers to support them.  There is much work ahead to bridge the gaps and meet the needs of all West Virginians, particularly low-income families struggling for a place at the table.  With WV Food and Farm Coalition and their food advocacy allies leading the way there is great hope for innovative and transformative change here in West Virginia.

If you want to hear Mark Winne’s keynote speech you can find a link to the webinar here. Here is a complete roundup of the discussion. Join the conversation with us, let’s get to work together to start adding new pillars to West Virginia’s food system’s tent!

 

What is Food Insecurity?

What is food insecurity?  Who is hungry?  How do we measure hunger?  How do we represent hunger in print, on a map, or in our social networks?  How do our conceptions of hunger affect our strategies to serve people who need food resources?  For the past 18 months the WV FOODLINK research team has painstakingly wrestled with with these questions. We are not the first to do so of course. As households increasingly find it difficult to access food on a regular basis many have gone before us to develop methods and standards that might help a project like this one determine who is hungry, where they are, and how to resolve the problem.

The USDA Food Desert Map provides researchers across the country with valuable spatial statistics on food access. Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap offers an attempt to provide a county scale analysis of food insecurity rates. While these maps and the statistics behind them are helpful, they also tend to essentialize hunger and food access into a thing that can be measured quantitatively, in the process hiding important nuances in the everyday lived realities of those struggling to make ends meet.

In this section, we work to provide regular glimpses into the work of food assistance providers and the lives of those that they serve. We’ll explore where this food comes from, why and how different households access it and highlight the labor involved to keep it all moving. There are also many novel initiatives happening across the state to address growing food access gaps we want to highlight, as well as open this space up to others who want to express what food insecurity means in their lives and communities.

Looking beyond the scale of individuals stories we’ll also be exploring political and economic processes unfolding beyond our state’s borders that contribute to the difficulties many face access sufficient nutritious food. By engaging with wider food security debates across the country and relating them to the Appalachian context, we hope this forum will become the fount of a fruitful discussion among multiple stakeholder groups including service providers, policy makers and those accessing food assistance services.