These Groups are Reforming West Virginia's Food Economy

Oct 28, 2014

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The phrase “food-desert” might sound like a landscape of sagebrush and armadillos, but it's really a place where SlimJims, chicken nuggets and Slurpies count as dinner. A food desert can happen anywhere- we've all seen them. People who live in a food desert may be surrounded by food—fast food or convenient store hotdogs, instead of fresh, healthy food.

Even in rural West Virginia, where small farms still dot the roadside, fresh food isn't available to all people. In some places it can take over an hour just to reach the next grocery store. Reawakening some of the old, small farm traditions-- and bringing a new local food movement to West Virginia-- is the work of five non-profits that were highlighted by the James Beard Foundation. Groups were chosen based on their work to bring healthy, local food to more people.

One of those chosen to be highlighted is the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, directed by Elizabeth Spellman.

“We focus on helping people connect with each other so they can educate each other and be stronger together,” said Spellman.

The coalition trains farmers and advocates for statewide policies that help nurture small farmers.

Spellman says that because West Virginia has the highest number of small farms per capita in the country, there is a unique opportunity here to help transform the local food economy.

Children with a YMCA camp helping find harlequin beetles in the West Side Community Garden Project in Charleston
Credit Roxy TOdd

“Yeah, and we're uniquely positioned to show what a small farm state can do because we don't really have that many large farms. We're mostly small farms. And people relying on each other and working together.” 

The Food and Farm coalition launched in 2010 under the West Virginia Community Development Hub, but recently the group has grown and is now its own nonprofit. Other groups that work in West Virginia that the James Beard Foundation chose to highlight were the the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia- which hosts the Cast Iron Cook Off each January, the West Virginia University Small Farm Center, The Wild Ramp market in Huntington, and the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which helps preserve heirloom seeds across the south. The organizations were all selected to be part of a guide, which launched yesterday on FoodTank and is meant to help chefs and consumers identify sources of local, healthy food.

Hannah McCune, age 11, helping in the West Side Community Garden Project in Charleston
Credit Roxy Todd