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!