WV FOODLINK: Researchers Work to Link People to Food

Bradley Wilson and his team are posting information, and a lot of maps like this food desert map of West Virginia they made for Inside Appalachia.

Researchers at West Virginia University are working to holistically understand “food insecurity” throughout West Virginia with a program they call WV FOODLINK

The program is trying to connect people to food resources that already exist throughout the state, while exploring unmet needs and what might be done to fill them. It’s a moving target, but researchers say West Virginians are an innovative bunch. Continue to read or listen here

WEBINAR: Mapping, Analyzing and Discussing Community Food Resources

Webinar

 

Our partners at the Applachian Foodshed Project hosted a webinar this week with our very own Dr. Bradley Wilson. He described WV FOODLINK’s vision for action-research and reflects on the value of participatory mapping practices in the promotion of community food dialogues.

You can find a complete recording of the presentation here.

Back to the Source

This past Tuesday, the FOODLINK team presented research findings to the Monongalia County Food and Hunger Committee. It was a homecoming of sorts, since this is the group with whom we first began exploring questions of food access and hunger. The food and hunger committee is a group of emergency food assistance providers from across Monongalia county that meet on a monthly basis to collaborate on food drives, fundraising and inter-agency support. In the summer of 2013 we interviewed each agency director to understand their perceptions of the emergency food network, learn about the context within which they work and the challenges that they face in their daily activities. The findings from that summer continue to inform FOODLINK’s research questions and methodology.

After travelling across West Virginia and speaking to actors at different levels of the emergency food network, it was important to return to the source to communicate what we’ve learned and develop the next phase of our research with the partners that were the initial impetus for this project. We organized a luncheon, presented our findings and received feedback from the group about how the data collected to date might best serve their needs.

We then introduced the FOODLINK website and the possibilities it could offer social service workers directing people to resources and communicating their work to partners and funders. We also presented data that is not yet reflected on the website and asked the group how they might envision this information being used in their work.

The group engaged in a lively discussion about the burdens carried by emergency food assistance agencies and the lack of public awareness about the work that goes on behind the scenes to feed thousands of people every month. They also discussed the difficulties of measuring hunger, the lack of representation of the working poor,  the fact that they never know how the numbers they report back are being used, and the difficulties accessing food donations from local retailers. We conducted an exercise asking each agency to map out their emergency food network and then introduced a participatory mapping activity at the county scale to collectively visualize the various food assistance service areas in the county.

Participatory mapping
Drawing service area of the Wadestown Food Pantry
Participatory Mapping
Talking through emergency food service areas in Monongalia County
Mapping Conversation
Collectively reflecting on the map drawn by participants

 

The meeting confirmed that the next phase of our research should be focused on creating unique food security assessments for each county in West Virginia. While we could crunch the loads of data that we have collected and create pretty maps these may be useless if they provide no value to those working toward hunger relief.  The meeting was a great first step toward understanding what a county level food security assessment in West Virginia should look like. A food security assessment should work, at the very least to ask new questions about the ways in which our hunger relief programs are managed at the county scale, and whether that scale is even an appropriate one to start with.

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!

 

WV FOODLINK Unveils Online Resource Hub

WV FOODLINK at West Virginia University unveils online resource hub to emergency food providers in West Virginia

On February 9, 2015 the WV FOODLINK team traveled to Parkersburg, WV to unveil foodlink.wvu.edu for the first time. Hosted by the Sister’s of St. Joseph Charitable Fund and Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the demonstration brought together representatives from the state’s two largest hunger relief agencies Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Food Bank, the WV Perishable Foods and Medicine Project, Volunteers Organized Against Disaster as well as representatives from the WV Council of Churches, Our Community Foundation and Bernard McDonough Foundation key supporters hunger relief and health projects throughout the state.

In the demonstration WV FOODLINK Director Bradley Wilson retraced the genesis of the project and the hard work of our research and design teams in the Department of Geology and Geography and West Virginia GIS Technical Center at WVU.  Associate Director Joshua Lohnes, Research Assistant Thomson Gross and Outreach Coordinator Jenna Mosely fielded questions and provided insight on the purpose, process and promise of the online resource hub.

Following the demonstration dialogue among the participants revolved around the importance of ensuring a resilient emergency food network and the role of WV FOODLINK in meeting those goals.  Participants discussed the value of research and the importance of communication in foster shared vision among emergency food service providers, regional food system practitioners, disaster response teams, local and state policy makers, religious institutions, and the general public.  The WV FOODLINK team invited all to take ownership over the online resource hub; thinking of it as a “learning commons” that each stakeholder group might claim as their own.