WV SB 626 Shelved in House Health Committee

Yesterday, WV FOODLINK, WV Food and Farm Coalition, and American Friends Service Committee WV scored a huge victory for food justice at the WV Legislature.  Thanks largely to the research conducted by WV FOODLINK staff, SB 626 (which threatened to exacerbate the food desert problem for over 351,000 West Virginians) has been shelved in the House Health Committee. Thank you to everyone who helped with reaching out to house delegates to educate them on this bill.

“Push to Limit WV Food Stamp Benefits Appears Dead” http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/20160303/push-to-limit-wv-food-stamp-benefits-appears-dead

SB 626 clouds efforts to improve healthy food access in WV

On February 18, 2016 SB 626 was introduced “requiring the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Resources to seek a waiver within the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to allow that benefits issued under the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program be limited to purchases with the same or similar nutritional value as purchases allowable under the Women’s, Infant and Children Program.”  This policy sounds healthy but we need time for a closer look.  SB 626 in its current form generates dangerous confusion about the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women’s Infants and Children Program and how both program’s nutritional standards are regulated.  DHHR, the Department of Agriculture and the people of WV need to understand the intent of SB 626.

West Virginians need to know more about SB 626.  359,000 SNAP beneficiaries should have the power to choose where they shop for SNAP eligible foods and 1,892 food retailers need time to adapt to higher nutritional standards.

The USDA’s SNAP and WIC standards establish eligible foods that must be stocked by retailers and may be purchased by eligible beneficiaries of these federally funded programs.  In 2014, the USDA’s SNAP program invested $476,134,200 in food retail and household nutrition in WV.  In the same year the WIC program invested $26,254,988 to support mothers and small children.  1 in 5 WV citizens depends on these programs.  1,892 retailers depend on these federal funds as a source of income.  SNAP and WIC are essential to the nutrition and health of our state.  Raising standards or restricting access without a clear rationale for doing so can have negative impacts.   Indeed, the USDA opposes state-level food restrictions of SNAP because as they write:

  • No clear standards exist to define foods as good or bad, or healthy or not healthy;
  • Food restrictions would pose major implementation challenges and increase program complexity and costs;
  • Restrictions may not change the nature of participants’ food purchases;
  • No evidence exists which indicates that food stamp benefits directly contribute to poor food choices and negative dietary outcomes, such as obesity.

USDA-“IMPLICATIONS OF RESTRICTING THE USE OF FOOD STAMP BENEFITS” http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/arra/FSPFoodRestrictions.pdf

SNAP and WIC programs are very different; not only because of who is eligible and what they can spend their benefits on, but even more importantly the requirements for eligible nutritious food items that retailers must stock.  To participate in the SNAP and WIC programs retailers MUST meet federally mandated food stocking criteria.  In West Virginia 1,892 retailers currently meet SNAP requirements and are offering 3 items in the 4 staple food groups.  However, only 293 retailers in WV are currently certified and audited to meet WIC requirements.  Stores that meet the higher WIC requirements for stocking nutritious food tend to be located in higher income areas, are not evenly dispersed throughout the state, and tend to be met by grocery stores, many of which are locally-owned (see map on reverse).   Restricting use of SNAP benefits only to foods that meet WIC criteria could deepen the food desert problem in WV and undermine people’s power to make healthy choices.

 Legislators should not … Restrict the use of SNAP benefits to meet ambiguous nutritional standards.  It is not sound policy to improve our health and reduce food insecurity in WV.

 Legislators should … support the USDA’s proposed rule to that requires retailers to expand the stock of nutritious retail items to seven or more varieties in the four staple food categories to receive SNAP certification.  (RIN – 0584-AE27 – February 17, 2016)

Contact: Dr. Bradley Wilson – brwilson@mail.wvu.edu

Don’t let ambiguity in SB 626 cloud efforts to improve healthy food access in WV.

Legislators, DHHR, the Department of Agriculture, retailers and consumers should know more about the intention of the required waiver and why the state needs SB 626.

  • Why contradict the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services opposition to restrictive policies that decrease food security, deepen food deserts, and reduce the consumer’s right to food in our state? (See reverse)
  • Provide evidence that restricting the eligible items that individual SNAP beneficiaries can purchase will not unfairly burden people who cannot access a sufficient variety of those items at existing retail stores in their vicinity?Senate SNAP Bill FoodLink

Areas in green are the only places with access to various retailers that supply a variety of WIC eligible foods.  Imposing restrictions can deepen food access problems for SNAP beneficiaries. 

 Alternately legislators may wish the bill to achieve greater access to healthy food by:

1) Increasing access to healthy food by requiring retailers to meet elevated nutrition standards proposed by USDA on February 17, 2016.

2) Coordinating a nutrition fund through the Heathly Food Financing Initiative that supports retailers to meet elevated SNAP and WIC requirements.

3) Help increasing funds to DHHR or Dept of Agriculture to meet the increased costs of certifying 1892 SNAP certified retailers and meet elevated nutritional standards.

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

Regrowing a Wasteland

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

Untitled-1

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

 

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.

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

 

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.

Undergraduate Research Day at the WV Capitol

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.

The research poster
The research poster

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.

Gee with FOODLINK Students
With president Gee

Read on about the Undergraduate Research Day 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!