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.
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.
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.
On March 4, 2015 WV FOODLINK research assistants Amanda Marple, a senior geography student, and Dillon Muhly-Alexander, a sophomore in political science and international studies, presented WV FOODLINK at the Undergraduate Research Day in Charleston. During the three hour showcase in the Capitol rotunda, the two students introduced the research project to West Virginia legislators and scholars from 15 colleges and universities across the state. Amanda and Dillon presented a poster featuring some of the project’s findings to date, and gave a live demonstration of the newly launched FOODLINK website.
Most expressed a strong interest in the development of this public resource, and a sense of surprise that the information compiled by the FOODLINK research team had not previously been available in a central location. Hoppy Kercheval, of WV Metro News invited Dillon to speak about the project on his radio show that day. Dillon highlighted some of work FOODLINK has accomplished over the last year, particularly in the 12 southern counties where the research took place during this first phase of the project. He expressed his hope that the tool being developed would help policy makers make more informed decisions about the food insecurity landscape in a state where 15% of West Virginians struggle to access food.
Following the activities in the capitol, Amanda and Dillon were invited to sit with WVU’s President Gordon Gee during the luncheon hosted by WVU and Marshall University. This was a great opportunity to showcase FOODLINK’s work with President Gee who highlighted the project later in his keynote address.
Read on about the Undergraduate Research Day here.