Nourishing Networks Curriculum

1. Organize

Facilitators are key to organizing a successful Nourishing Networks workshop. Identify leaders that will drive the process in your community and go out to coffee with them to discuss:

1. What does food insecurity look like in your area?

2. Can we benefit from organizing an assessment with others? If so how?

3. Who needs to be at the table? Will there be a diversity of food system actors involved throughout this process?

4. Make an invite list

5. Find a location, set a date and invite folks to come together to discuss.

2. Identify Barriers

The first meeting identifies barriers to food access in your area. It is helpful to provide participants with data on the demographic and socio-economic dynamics affecting food access in your area. The County Profiles are a helpful resource to begin collecting this information.

At the center of our concern about healthy food access is people. Across West Virginia many people confront significant barriers to accessing affordable, adequate, nutritious foods. Some of the forces that affect people’s ability to access healthy food are represented in our food access barriers wheel. The inner circle is composed of a series of social constraints that have the most direct impact on the ability of an individual, a household, or a community to access food.

Click on the tabs below to learn about some of the principles underlying each spoke of the wheel. The videos incorporate the voices of people living with the daily experience of food insecurity.

Crisis refers to disasters, unemployment, health issue or death that can undermine food access for an individual, household or community

When we think about crisis, we need to think about different levels of vulnerability people have to a crisis. The same event happening to two people can have very different consequences depending on other parts of the access wheel including income, identity, knowledge and location. For one person a car breaking down is an inconvenience, for another it could mean a reduction in employment. Lost wages for a household with $10,000 in savings is very different than unemployment for a single mom with few assets. A chronic illness or an unexpected death might momentarily disrupt, or it could completely shatter a household economy. Even a flood that affects an entire community might leave some households more vulnerable to food insecurity than others based on the capacity to bounce back from disaster or even the knowledge to access recovery services. Crisis then must be thought of in context.

So when we think about crisis, and the different vulnerabilities to crisis, because that’s what we’re talking about, how do we actually work together to mitigate those social vulnerabilities. What solutions are we going to bring forward? One is to increase social safety nets, perhaps increase family medical leave. Pass laws that lessen the disaster that people can experience from these crises in their lives.

Income refers to the effect of someone’s resources in wages or assets as well as the costs of food, debts carried, and the time limits placed on those who work rather than growing food for themselves. As a majority of people in the U.S. work to earn money to buy food, this is the largest constraint on food access.

Household income in West Virginia was thirteen thousand dollars less than the national median last year, so clearly, income is something that many West Virginians struggle with. What does that mean in a context where the norm is to exchange money for food?

Our region has a long history of economic struggle. We live in a resource rich environment but financial benefits from timber, coal, gas, the chemical industry or even tourism have not been evenly distributed. As these industries face rapid changes, legacies of that history live on for many who work very hard, but still live in poverty. Low and stagnant wages, unstable job opportunities or unemployment lead to high participation rates in safety net programs like SNAP and Medicaid. These come with significant restrictions and cliff effects that can make them difficult and frustrating for people that must rely on them.

It took a long time to get to this point, so lack of income is not something that any one person or organization can solve. It requires a lot of structural, systemic changes. In 2019 the state’s minimum wage of $8.75 for example is simply not enough to feed a single person let alone a family. How would a fifteen dollar minimum wage improve food access? How would reduced medical bills improve food access? How would guaranteed access to childcare improve health and nutrition?

I already see a lot of West Virginians tackling this problem as they can with the resources they have. I see people working in food pantries, many themselves struggling on the margins of food insecurity. I see people fighting to protect assistance programs currently under threat that are lifelines for thousands of vulnerable West Virginians. And I see WVU extension agents working to help folks stretch their limited food budgets. All of this is inspiring, but no one can tackle this income problem alone. It is going to take a lot of organization to push for policy changes that increase income to guarantee a right to healthy food for all.

Identity refers to the way someone’s gender, race, disability, sexuality, nationality or age affects their ability to access food.

We see identity (the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person or a group) in a number of forms; whether that be race, age, gender, ability, class, culture, etc.

Identity inevitably defines food access. Everyone has to eat, and our identities are intertwined with our preferences and also the barriers we encounter to access, choose, and prepare our foods. Are there culturally appropriate foods available for people where they live?

So what does it look like for someone who is differently-abled to access food? Are food spaces designed with them in mind? Do they have adequate transportation to those places? Does food packaging or service limit access in any way?

How does it feel for someone who is black, brown or latinX to enter predominantly white food spaces? Race as an access barrier is extremely prevalent in our food system, an issue we need to begin discussing more openly. We need to understand the biases and inequities that continue to play out of historical injustice. Does segregation create barriers to food access in communities of color? Yes. Is everyone welcome to shop and peruse grocery isles in the same way? No.

Another identity is social class? How do low income folks feel at farmers markets that are more easily accessible to wealthier segments of our communities? How might we think of the relationship between diet and class and how these shape the values people attribute to different types of foods?

One way that communities or grassroots organizations can address identity issues in our food system is to be intentionally inclusive of difference. We need to be asking who is at the table, Who are we inviting into the conversation and solutions offered and is everyone being heard? Which voices are dominating? Do we need to step forward or step back? Finally, are we intentional about including folks who face significant food access barriers? How can we support them, place them in positions of power and leadership to advocate on behalf of those with whom they share an identity?

Knowledge refers to what people know, what experience or skills they have, their place-based understanding, and the relationships they have with others.

We need to know many things to access food, when you think about it it’s all actually quite complex. Where is food located? What hours is that place open? How do I get there? What do I need to bring with me when I get there? If it’s a market then I will need some money. Knowledge might affect the type of job I have and so is tied to how much money I can exchange for food.

If a household has insufficient income to buy food they might rely on SNAP to access markets. Where do I apply for SNAP? How do I navigate the bureaucracies that provide that entitlement? Does that market even have an EBT machine? Will they take my WIC vouchers?

If income and state benefits run out I have to rely on a food pantry. Where are those located, am I welcome there? What documentation do I need to bring? What kinds of food are there?

If I am growing food I need to know when to plant, how to tend, when to harvest, how to preserve. If I am looking to bring that food to the market, I need to know what the regulations are to sell it and what the price I will receive for my product is. If I’m hunting or foraging for food, there again there is deep knowledge involved.

Food is connected to knowledge with regard to nutrition as well. What is in this food? How do I make sense of these labels? What is the relationship between this food and my health?

We often take knowledge for granted in our discussions about food access, and we also tend to assume our knowledge is the “right” kind of knowledge to have. But knowledge is not a one-way street. What hidden or uncovered knowledge do people struggling with food insecurity have to contribute? What connections and networks do they know about that those seeking to help them do not?

Location refers to people’s proximity to healthy food outlets, the availability of particular foods, as well as the ability to grow food.

Where we live affects the way we access food. If we live in a city, chances are we’ll have access to more services than if we live in the country. But even in a city neighborhoods generally have different food options based on factors like race and income. Transportation options are also affected by where we live.

There are plenty of places in West Virginia that would be categorized as food deserts or areas of low food access. What we try to look at in our food access maps is not just the quantity of food available but also the quality of that food. We are also looking at the relative distance to high quality foods, not just physical distance. So drive times as opposed to how the crow flies are two very different things that we need to take into account when we are thinking about location.

Location is not just about barriers to access though. There are also incredible assets that are based on where we live. Just because conventional thinking may tell you that you live in a food desert, it’s important to realize other resources that are unique to your location that can actually help improve your access to food there. So if there’s a rich culture and abundant resources related to hunting, fishing, and other forms of self provisioning, it’s really important to highlight the assets and the positive aspects of location rather than only thinking of it as a barrier. Are there informal networks that exist in those areas, say around transportation options, but that may not be immediately visible because they aren’t governed by a county or city?

There are a range of indirect forces that also shape the scope and severity of food access barriers. We characterize these as broad structural forces such as economic change (financial crisis, mine closures), political change (budget cuts, program elimination), environmental change (flooding, pollution), or social change (expansion or reduction in civil rights). These indirect structural forces are also constantly changing and thereby shaping the direct forces that shape people’s access to healthy food. Environmental change in the form of a flood disaster. Economic change in the form of layoffs or wage reductions. Social change in the form of racism and marginalization. Political change in the form of cutting nutritional program budgets. In conjunction we understand people’s ability to navigate these barriers to be harrowing at best.

There are a number of factors seemingly beyond a community’s control that can affect food access. These are things that seem like we don’t have power to change, and that sense of powerlessness can be difficult for communities confronting food access barriers that are trying to survive on a day to day basis. As communities we need to figure out how to enfranchise communities struggling with food access. How do we elevate their political voice and political stake in the laws that get written and affect their day to day lives.

We need to build solidarity and cooperation not only within communities but across communities. How are low access communities connecting to advocate with their representatives? How can laws at the state or federal level change the social, political and environmental conditions that lead to food access failure? Then at the state level how are our coalitions connecting with others across the country. It can be difficult a lot of the things we do seem like we are putting band-aids on a wound, but if we can come together in a cooperative process around organizing food system change, shaping the laws that affect food access to shape, the subsidies that allow us to develop innovative strategies to improve food access, we can work toward collective change.

3. Identify Strategies

People access food through various mechanisms. While many people who might be reading this access food by spending their wages in a market (grocery store) many other individuals, households and communities cannot afford to access food exclusively in this way. Government programs play a major role in supporting low-income families and those confronting crises. Charitable assistance agencies also play a supplementary role. Farmers make important local contributions to food access and hunters put away a lot of protein for the winter. However, surrounding the inner ring again are the broader structural forces that shape these various strategies.

Click on the tabs below to learn about some of the principles underlying each spoke of the wheel. The videos incorporate the voices of people living with the daily experience of food insecurity.

Market refers to grocery stores, convenience stores, restaurants, dollar stores and the like where people exchanges wages for food.

Markets are what we tend to think of when we’re asked, “How do we access food?” or when thinking of food sourcing strategies. I go to the supermarket, a Krogers or Walmart, I pay the cashier, I buy my groceries. I am interacting in a market based space exchanging money for food. My food purchase is the end of a series of other market transactions that led to the food being on that shelf. This market based strategy has evolved over time into the retail patterns that we have come to know today, from big box stores to grocers and Dollar Stores and mini-marts. Markets are the dominant food sourcing strategy for most of us in the United States today.

One of the main issues we encounter around market based strategies is the consolidation of the food retail sector. So Walmart, Kroger and Dollar General now have a lot of power to decide where they are going to place a store. We’ve also witnessed their power to leave a place, and the effects that can have on a community who depends on those markets as a food access strategy. The decisions surrounding what food items to place on the shelf are determined elsewhere, and the profits made from those sales are usually not reinvested locally. What effect can this have on a community that is already marginalized or stretched for resources?

Places facing market access barriers have responded by creating retail alternatives such as farmers markets, mobile and pop-up markets, CSAs and food cooperatives. How are our food access interventions supporting community owned initiatives that maintain more control over our food resources and offer healthy and appropriate food options? What funding and infrastructure do we need to put into place for that to happen? How do we ensure these markets stay in business in the face of fierce competition in the retail sector? Is there potential to build on the charitable infrastructure to achieve these goals? Can we lean the supply chains in place to create these alternative market solutions?

These are some of the questions that are beginning to surface around markets as food access strategies in the context of a rapidly changing market landscape.

State refers to government programs such as SNAP, WIC and School programs that provide direct subsidies to offset the cost of food for individuals and households (especially children) who lack the money to access food in the market

The state has responded to hunger, food insecurity, and low food access through a number of different programs. These include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the WIC program, which serves women, infants and children. Both are cash equivalent programs for low income families to purchase specific types of food. The state also purchases food for our schools through National Breakfast and Lunch programs and for our charitable food sector through the Emergency Food Assistance Program. The state also supports food purchases for seniors through meal delivery and congregate meals served out of senior centers throughout the state.

If public funding for nutrition assistance disappeared overnight many people would go hungry. We witnessed some of that panic this year with the government shutdown affecting certain key programs. An important thing to note about the government’s commitment to helping improve nutrition is that it frees up money that would otherwise not be in that community or that local economy to purchase food, therefore allowing other income that people have in their household to be spent on other things.

State food assistance is an economic multiplier. USDA research has shown that every SNAP dollar for example brings $1.7 dollars back to the economy. It’s important to realize how much state nutrition assistance ensures people have access to food. Unfortunately these programs are often misrepresented and constantly under threat from budget cuts at both the national and state level, and more restrictive eligibility guidelines that limit participation.

If you’re working to improve food access in your community, it’s important to have information about these programs. You can’t underestimate how important state funding is for both for our economy and the people that rely on these benefits to make ends meet. There are efforts underway to protect and enhance these programs and one of the most effective ways to improve food access over the long term is to get involved in that work.

Charity refers to free food rations provided by food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens that is funded by donation.

Charity is a food access strategy that depends on faith groups and other nonprofits to raise money and organize volunteers that distribute food to those in need. The state is involved through the distribution of federal commodities, but the bulk of the work distributing this food is done by private charities. The charitable food network in West Virginia includes two regional food banks and around 550 local agencies that give away millions of pounds of free food to 300,000 people each month.

Now these interventions were initially thought of as a temporary hiccup in an economic system that would find balance over time. Since the 1980s however the network has grown significantly and institutionalized alongside income inequality, public food assistance cuts and the social exclusion associated with both.

Feeding the hungry comes with power dynamics between givers and receivers that we need to pay attention to. Why does charity continue to exist in its current form? What is the relationship between food waste and hunger, why do both exist at the same time? Who benefits from this status quo?

Of course, local food charities are also key assets in their communities. They mobilize people who care about hunger. They forge links between different organizations, and they work directly with people in crisis. So food charities offer potential sites for organizing and implementing programs that address food access barriers. Their capacity and ability to engage with new programming is different from place to place of course, but we’ve seen charities get involved in policy advocacy to expand programs that enhance healthy food access and address the root causes of hunger and food insecurity. Many are becoming key parts of building up our regional food systems by establishing links with local farmers, building community gardens or setting up pop-up markets.

Farming refers to grower-based initiatives to sell produce through farmers markets and other mechanisms.

There is a lot of momentum right now in the state around farming and what’s referred to as specialty crop production which is your fresh produce, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, honey, nuts and those food products you would typically find at a farmers market. In contrast to dairy, corn, soy, wheat and other intensified commodity production, specialty crop farms receive few subsidies.

Nearly 80% of federal support for farming is going toward 5 % of the largest farms in the country. None of those are in West Virginia, where most of our farms are comparatively very small. We have the highest rate of farms per person in the country though, which is a really great asset, there is biological crop diversity and opportunities for community food security there. How are we making resources available to our farmers to ensure they can continue operating in the face of intense competition?

Supply chains consolidated in a few large corporations do not reflect the true costs of production. A lot of the food we eat is also subsidized by extremely low wages paid to migrant labor, pesticide use, and other practices that small farmers here may not want to engage with.

It’s not easy to live off of a small farm operation these days. Nearly 70% of the farmers we interviewed in a recent study said that they depend on another source of money to make ends meet such as off-farm employment, spousal income, retirement benefits etc.

Can these farms play a strategic role in addressing food access problems we face in our state? How can we expand the number of market opportunities for our small farmers while ensuring low income consumers are able to afford the foods they produce? This is a tough nut to crack!

It’s going to take our state getting involved to bridge the gap. Programs like SNAP stretch and food prescription programs are a great start, but they need state support.
Only 1% of West Virginians shop at a farmers market. How do we create markets for local produce that are accessible to low income families. There’s going to have to be a diversity of options.

Programs like the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective that’s working with many farmers to make wholesale pricing available is an exciting development in our state’s food system right now. How can we work with these types of initiatives in our food access programming?

Self-provisioning refers to practices of hunting, foraging, fishing or growing food.

I’m from Webster county in central West Virginia where a lot self provisioning goes on. My family in particular does a lot of hunting, foraging, and fishing, and it was a big part of my upbringing. In the spring, for example, we dig and clean ramps. In the fall, we always hunt white tailed deer. Many West Virginians hunt not just for sport, but to fill their freezers with meat. This is especially important for West Virginians who live far from a grocery store. Venison meat and summer garden produce also circulate in a community through non-cash types of exchange, so even those who don’t hunt or garden may have access to food from self-provisioning.

We often talk about charity in terms of solutions for food access, but according to the west virginia department of natural resources there are around 9 million pounds of wild game harvested each year in this state, that’s a lot of food!
Self-provisioning can counter location barriers to food access. Some are left with no choice but to garden, forage and hunt for food because of the distance to grocers carrying healthy food options. Community gardens fall into this category as well, providing a place for people who may not have access to land to grow food. Self-provisioning as a community helps people get involved in provisioning and sharing food.

There is a rich history of self-provisioning here and deep knowledge associated with it. Many feel it is important to pass that down to future generations. Where are the best fishing spots and what bait never fails there? Self-provisioning is also about passing down traditions and coming together as a community. But this also has to be supported and cultivated.

In a study I’m doing with the Wilderness Geography Lab at WVU we found that when poverty and unemployment rates are high, whitetail deer harvest rates plummet. So even these non wage based modes of food provisioning are hindered by poverty and unemployment. Self-provisioning takes a lot of time, labor, and money and if you are struggling financially, it’s not easy to partake in these culturally important practices that promote food security in times of economic crisis.

External Factors are the broader structural forces that shape these various strategies. In conjunction with the barriers described earlier, these can indirectly impact people’s ability to exercise these food access strategies. Economic change can lead retailers to close up shop or raise prices. Political changes can cause the loss of vital government nutrition programs. Charities may become overwhelmed by the growing need or fail to raise enough money to meet demand. Farmers may confront environmental changes like social degradation or drought. Self-provisioners might confront disease in their gardens, declining game habitat or access to fishing areas.

There are a number of factors seemingly beyond a community’s control that can affect food access. These are things that seem like we don’t have power to change, and that sense of powerlessness can be difficult for communities confronting food access barriers that are trying to survive on a day to day basis. As communities we need to figure out how to enfranchise communities struggling with food access. How do we elevate their political voice and political stake in the laws that get written and affect their day to day lives.

We need to build solidarity and cooperation not only within communities but across communities. How are low access communities connecting to advocate with their representatives? How can laws at the state or federal level change the social, political and environmental conditions that lead to food access failure? Then at the state level how are our coalitions connecting with others across the country. It can be difficult a lot of the things we do seem like we are putting band-aids on a wound, but if we can come together in a cooperative process around organizing food system change, shaping the laws that affect food access to shape, the subsidies that allow us to develop innovative strategies to improve food access, we can work toward collective change.

4. Plan and Implement

Strategize for healthy food access based on the needs and assets of the area

Identify what partners need to be committed to working on this project

Consider what funding will be needed and where this could be obtained

Create a plan of action and next steps

Plan for the next meeting and keep an open line of communication throughout the network

Some examples of initiatives that have emerged out of the Nourishing Networks Process.

Ag-tivity Days

WVU Extension, the Center for Supported Learning, Access WV, and the WVU Food Justice Lab are working to support food access by organizing a series of AG-tivity Days at Crum Middle, Spring Valley High, and Wayne Middle School. These days will identify and determine local resources in agriculture, highlight opportunities to increase healthy food access in the county, and create a community space for learning and fun! These annual events will be an opportunity for stakeholders to come together, share ideas, and fund school-based projects. Current scheduled AG-tivities to be featured include: The Wild Ramp’s new Rolling Ramp – a mobile farmers market, $4 farmers market vouchers for school children, information booths, service providers, food demos from WVU Extension, health and agricultural education, food for purchase from local restaurants, and many networking opportunities. The first Ag-tivity Day is scheduled for September 2018.

Healthy Food Access Summit

WVU Extension and the Food Justice Lab partnered together with the Food Justice Laboratory to organize a dinner where members of the community were invited to eat and talk about food access in their county. The dinner meeting functioned much like the original Nourishing Networks workshop, as dinner guests worked in small groups to discuss barriers and strategies for food access in Fayette. The Fayette team from the initial Nourishing Networks workshop had identified a need to take a grassroots approach and involve community members who live, work, and access food in Fayette every day in order to effectively strategize in a way that properly met the needs of Fayette citizens.

Health and Nutrition Fairs

PRIDE Community Services, WVU Extension, Grow Appalachia, Williamson Health and Wellness Center, and the WVU Food Justice Lab worked to start up Logan County’s bi-annual Health and Nutrition Fairs, the first of which is set to take place in August 2018 at the Back to School Bash. Farmers market vouchers will be given out on a first come, first serve basis. Also featured at the community event will be WVU Extension cooking demonstrations, Grow Appalachia canning demonstrations, blood pressure screenings, as well as eye exams and dental screenings for Head Start students. 

The Logan team didn’t stop there. They also organized “New Food Tuesdays” in schools, which allowed children to taste new vegetables and an opportunity for parents to purchase the local produce after school. They also started up senior pop up markets in 2017 and are currently working to organize free community dinners to the Logan public, an event that was a hit in the past but under recent years had fallen to the wayside.

Food Security for Seniors

In the Calhoun County workshop, participants noted an undeserved population in the county – senior citizens. Collaborators worked endlessly to provide supplemental food boxes to go to senior citizens in the county. Boxes are part of Mountaineer Food Bank’s Silver Lining Program and will be distributed to this undeserved population monthly over a 12-month period. WVU Extension, the Family Resource Network, Community Resources Inc, and others are currently recruiting for this program which is set to begin in August 2018.  

Farmacy Program

Wetzel workshop participants decided to tackle diet related illnesses and improvement of the local food economy. Grow Local Go Local, WVU Extension, WVDA, Wheeling Health Right, Wetzel County Hospital, and the WVU Food Justice Lab are working together to provide weekly fresh produce “prescriptions” to 25 Health Right patients. Eligible patients of Health Right are prescribed fresh produce boxes valued at around $20 per box and are able to pick up their prescriptions each week after seeing their health care provider. The Wetzel County FARMacy program began in June 2018 and will continue throughout October.

Senior Pop-Up Farmers Markets

In the Wood County workshop, participants noted the absence of a farmers market in the county. With few large-scale producers in the area, it was hard to get people to fresh and nutritious food – especially senior citizens. When the Calhoun team found it difficult to get people to food, they worked to get food to people instead. Wood County collaborators held a series of meetings in the spring to flesh out plans for senior pop-up farmers markets to take place July-October 2018 at several senior residential locations in Wood County. Senior vouchers valued at $5 will be provided to approximately 190 residents during the growing season