Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Better West Virginia Challenge: Food Files

Here's a deviation from the recipes and most of the snark. A Better West Virginia is promoting its second annual West Virginia Day Challenge. There will undoubtedly be articles about our roads, our schools, our mountains (or what's left of them). I'll spend my time on food, as I'm wont to do most days.

You all have heard me talk local in the past. I believe there is a lack of institutional community support for local agriculture economies in West Virginia. I also believe that on the whole, locally produced food and/or organically produced food are healthier than mass-produced, mass-transported food. So I'll take a stab at starting to define WHY local food is better food and at figuring out how local communities in West Virginia can create and sustain local food economies to encourage and support local agriculture.

There Are People Who Don't Like Local/Organic?

Some folks actually want to tell you that organic and locally produced foods are BAD for you. Damn those pesky policy-makers for trying to get children to eat their vegetables by giving them vegetables that taste like...vegetables! Fortunately for us all, The Daily Show got a hold of them and put a correspondent on the case. This'll be fun (emphasis mine)...
Bee interviewed Jeffrey Stier, associate director of the council, who referred to the Obamas as “organic limousine liberals.”

“I think the Obama garden should come with a warning label. It’s irresponsible to tell people that you should have to eat organic and locally grown food. Not everyone can afford that. That’s a serious public health concern.”

“People are going to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Cancer rates will go up. Obesity rates will go up. I think if we decide to eat only locally grown food, we’re going to have a lot of starvation.”
What? You think organic food will lead to obesity, starvation, and CANCER?

There are folks here in WV who agree with Stier: "She (Obama) has set her sights on the good folks in conventional agriculture by planting an organic garden. Organic gardening is just another activity promoted by the latte sipping limosene (sic) liberals that have never put in a hard days work spraying weed killer on their Miracle Grow."

If you're going to attack someone for wanting children to have healthier food with higher nutritional value, I'm not sure I can get through to you. And to say that people who grow organic gardens are 'setting their sights' on conventional agriculture in some devious plot is a tin-hat-wearing-esq...just a bit. Remember, 'organic' farming was 'conventional' for about 20,000 years around these parts before synthetic pesticides came along.

I Have to Prove Local/Organic is Healthier?

We'll start with this:
"When you buy locally grown, you're getting the produce at its peak form," says Darlene Price, senior nutrition resource educator at Orange County Cornell Cooperative Extension.


How long a bunch of romaine lettuce has been sitting around, it turns out, has a direct impact on just how good that romaine really is for you. That's because food starts to change as soon as it's plucked from the earth and tender vitamins such as C, E, A and thiamine begin to deteriorate.

"Over time, vitamin stability decreases," says Erika Ichinose, program coordinator for the Farmers Market Nutrition Program at Cornell University Cooperative Extension in New York City. Temperature changes, exposure to air and artificial light all wreak havoc, she says, robbing fruits and vegetables of nutrients.
Local means less transportation which means less nutrient loss in the foods. Check

And if an Ivy League/Public School partnership is too 'latte liberal' for you, let's consider Men's Health magazine:
What's more, studies show that wild fish is less contaminated by pollutants than farmed fish; grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed "industrial" cattle; and produce bought close to the source is more nutrient dense than fare from far away. Below, Colicchio explains how to always find the freshest ingredients and shows you how to put them together.

Local produce from small purveyors is generally fresher. Research from Iowa State University shows that while a local Iowa apple travels only 61 miles, a conventional supermarket apple travels 1,726 miles. "Farmer's markets are becoming one-stop shops for good local fish, meat, and dairy products, too," adds Colicchio. (Find one near you at
Non-factory-produced foods have has more of the good nutrients you need. Check.

STILL not good enough? Fah, here's the American Medical Association:
The AMA’s new Sustainable Food policy builds on a report from its Council on Science and Public Health, which indicates that locally produced and organic foods “reduce the use of fuel, decrease the need for packaging and resultant waste disposal, preserve farmland … [and] the related reduced fuel emissions contribute to cleaner air and in turn, lower the incidence of asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.”
And from one of the AMA members:
"Physicians now recognize that one cannot easily separate the health of food from how healthfully that food is produced," said Dr. David Wallinga, an attendee at the meeting, the Wm. T. Grant Foundation Distinguished Fellow in Food Systems and Public Health at the University of Minnesota, and a member of Health Care Without Harm. "The profligate use of antibiotics and fossil fuels in today's food system, for example, is directly linked to climate change and to the epidemic of antibiotic resistant infections, in hospitals and in communities. "
The most respected medical organization in the United States believes the health of food is related to how healthfully that food was produced (i.e. pesticides bad, local and organic good). Check.

I think you can see the relatively strong case to be made for increasing your consumption of local and/or organically grown foods.

And to be clear, organic and local are DIFFERENT and each is a good source of food. But neither are my sole source. Both local and organic production result in healthier food (and I think tastier). I think grass-fed beef is better than corn-fed beef because cows are designed by God to eat grass and not corn but I don't stop eating any beef that wasn't massaged by 23 virgins before slaughter. If I'm on a road-trip and need food I haven't prepped 20-pounds of homemade granola (but I have made my own before and it tastes better); I stop at a fast-food place for convenience. And if there's a farmer up the road who sprays his orchards a couple times, I'm not going to stick my nose up in the air, I'm likely to see if I can pick a bushel to take home (I'm just going to wash them when I get there).

There's practicality involved in everyone's life, people. My concern is that the scales are shifted so far away from food products we know to be better for our bodies and our sustainability.

What's Going On In West Virginia?

I think most West Virginians have at least some belief, at a macro level, that locally grown food is good food. You've gone to the neighbors to trade a can of half-runner beans put away last winter for a jar of preserves canned with your mother when the raspberries threatened to weigh the fence-posts down and bring them crashing into the road. Or you know the cousin in Monroe County who'll have either one of those jars if you need one.

And we have farmer's markets here in West Virginia, sure. There are 24 members of The West Virginia Farmer's Market Association (One ommission I noted from their list is the Capitol Market here in Charleston). According to the WVU Cooperative Extension Service, there are farmers' markets in 32 counties.

But creating a culture that invests in its local agriculture and reaps the benefits of its productivity will require more than 1 market for every 1.7-2.2 counties in the State. And I think if the Department of Agriculture, the WVU Extension Service, and the West Virginia Farmers' Market Association all have different information about how many markets exist in the state, that coordination is the key to getting this problem solved.

According to Local Harvest, there are only five Community Supported Agriculture operations in the State of West Virginia. If you head over to Wilson College's Robyn Van En Center, and search for WV, they'll tell you there are nine CSAs here. I don't know of a single community garden in my immediate area where I could go and plant a row or two of beans and peppers for my own use. So there consumers can't easily get small batches of local produce easily. You may be able to, but there's not a visible, viable network people can easily find from the outside.

There is The West Virginia Grown Program at the Department of Agriculture:
Participants in the West Virginia Grown program have met criteria that designate them as an official state-produced or in-state value-added producer that is headquartered in the state and contributes to the West Virginia economy through its employment, manufacturing, packaging, purchasing, marketing and the conducting of its business within the state.
There's a set of links in different categories inlcuding bakeries, meat & poultry, and wineries on the page. But you'll need to contact the folks at Ag to find out more. There doesn't appear to be a longer program description or application form on the website.

There is WVFarm2U, and I think they may end up being a perfect fit for what needs to happen here. But I don't think they've broken through into the mainstream enough yet. I'd love to help that happen. They:
Our Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia is a grassroots organization concerned with preserving the small farm, the environment, and a more traditional way of life. We believe in sustaining the small farm, the rural community, and the planet through earth-friendly agricultural practices and a buy-local emphasis.
But you don't get to them through the Ag site, or through generic local ag google searches, but good grief they look on the surface like they have the mojo to get it done.

What's Going On in Other Places?

So there are a few references creeping into the public about about the support for local agriculture and one gem that could be a huge part of the answer. But what else is out there? Are there models of engaging local agriculture and creating self-sustaining networks that exist elsewhere to which we can gaze for inspiration? Probably so...

In Virginia, you have options. You can head to the Piedmont Environental Council's Buy Local Virginia site to see what CSAs are offering in your area, search for producers and CSAs within a specific geographic area, and join local chapters to get involved yourself. You can also take a look at all the Farmer's markets in the Commonwealth, and find out what grocers carry local produce, at the Virginia Department of Agriculture's Virginia Grown website.

In Maryland, there are farmer's markets in all 24 Counties (23 Counties and Baltimore City, which Maryland State government treats like a county). Baltimore City has nine markets alone! The Maryland Department of Ag goes so far as to provide a list of markets (and producers in those markets) who accept WIC and Senior Citizen Farmer's Market Nutrition Coupons.

New York has the Farmers' Market Federation:
The Farmers' Market Federation of New York is a grassroots, membership organization of farmers' market managers, market sponsors, farmers and market supporters. Together, we have developed a spectrum of services to increase the number and capacity of farmers' markets in the state, develop the scope of professionalism in farmers' market management and improve the ability of markets to serve their farmers, their consumers and their host communities.
There is certainly nothing like THIS in West Virginia. P.S. 6 on New York’s Upper East Side, of its roof will be planted with vegetables and herbs next spring for the cafeteria. The school is using about $950,000 in city funds that it has put aside, and parents and alumni are providing almost a half-million dollars more.

“For the children, it’s exciting when you grow something edible,” said the school’s principal, Lauren Fontana.
Can you imagine if our schools cut costs and added learning and nutrition programs by growing their own food? And for most of our schools you wouldn't even have to get people's mind wrapped around putting the gardens on the roof. We have LAND here.

Another quick search on the Google for "local agriculture" sends you to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, a Western Massachusetts outfit with a board of directors and staff. CISA has programming to teach farmer's sustainable practices, connect food producers with institutional purchasers of food like schools and hospitals, and build community infrastructure to make local agriculture a part of the local economy.

So there are examples of other states with more central repositories of information on locally-support agricultural economies. And several of the examples I found were locally driven efforts to create economies and market them to consumers. There were non-profit community-based solutions; State governments acting as the central clearinghouse for local agricultural markets, a federation of markets creating their own network and programming; and alternative growing models for more urban areas. A pretty broad batch of options.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

And that brings me back to West Virginia, and our apparently disparate networks and patchworks of local agriculture. The prize, institutional community support for small-market agriculture, is probably closer than we think. Take a gander at Tom Philpott's August 2006 article in Grist.

Philpott concludes that the missing link isn't farms (which we have here), or markets (again, we have several), or even a desire to eat locally produced foods (which West Virginians appreciate instinctively). Paraphrasing the Bubba-in-Chief, "It's the infrastructure, stupid."
The problem facing local food production isn't lack of demand; it's lack of infrastructure...In the area where I farm, western North Carolina's High Country, every small-scale farm operation I know of, including my own, encounters bottlenecks every day caused by infrastructural gaps. If a corporate buyer appeared with a big order, it's hard to imagine how our area's farmers, or the buyer, would walk away happy.
That makes sense here. We have farms, we have producers, we have consumers who appreciate and value local foods.

And there's a light at the end of Philpott's tunnel. A natural course of action that calls for strategically thinking and deploying resources. He also has a simple and obvious call to the individual consumer too.
The farmers who supply the nation's farmers' markets and CSAs, despite brutal economics, represent a huge asset. Communities, and the nation as a whole, should figure out ways to collectively leverage the passion of these growers. Not through direct payments -- as with the current $14.5 billion per year subsidy boondoggle -- but rather through strategic investments in food-production infrastructure.

As for individuals, the way forward is clear: seek out farmers' markets, CSAs, and restaurants that procure locally. And stifle your sticker shock. That two-dollar tomato will likely deliver an experience that can't be bought at any price at a supermarket.
Getting from Here to There

Translating Philpott's language into West Virginia creates four conversations I think we all need to have. Four steps that are the first pieces in creating A Better West Virginia. I think several of these conversations are happening around dinner tables when farmers get together, between farmers' market producers and the chefs that have started to utilize them, and probably even in small town halls when mayors and local leaders are trying to figure out some way to leverage the local agriculture for local economic benefit. I think they need to happen all over the state, and include community leaders who will continue the conversation within and among the local agriculture economies in West Virginia.
  1. Who Buys Food? - Find out what the different types of people who buy food need. Grocery stores buy food from farmers and from large distribution networks; hospitals have clear needs for nutritious and varied menus; schools buy food and have volume and nutritional requirements; families buy food and have cost and nutritional needs; restaurants buy food and look for partnerships that can enhance their ability to sell their product.

    Find out what restaurateurs around the State have already successfully integrated local agriculture into their supply chain. Talk to restaurateurs and you can learn what they are willing to do to engage local farmers for sourcing. You can start with Melody and Tim Urbanic at Cafe Cimino in Sutton and John & Keeley Steele at Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston.

    The local farmer's markets that exist today are a likely host to this conversation. In Charleston, the Capitol Market reaching out with the Charleston Area Alliance to farmers, business leaders, restaurateurs, and local elected officials would work. Here in Charleston, a big table under the market roof with Kent Carper and his colleagues here and from Putnam County, Danny Jones, Ron Duerring and the Putnam superintendent of schools, Matt Ballard from The Charleston Area Alliance, the CEOs of the CAMC hospitals and Thomas/St. Francis, Capitol Market staff, the County Extension agents for Kanawha and Putnam, and reps from the farms that provide produce to the market around a table with restaurant chefs/owners trying to figure out how to get more local food on restaurant menus and in hospitals and schools? That doesn't seem like a stretch to me.

  2. Who Produces and Sells Food? - Find out to whom the producers are selling now. How many farmers are selling to local grocers, schools, restaurants. Find out where there are communities who have already begun to encourage local agriculture with markets and co-ops.

    What are barriers to production that small farmers see now? I guarantee they can identify barriers faster than you can. Talk to a farm in Pocahontas County about beef, pork, and lamb and find out the capacity of the butchers in their region limits them severely.

    I think this is a great place for us to engage traditional agricultural institutions. The Farm Bureau has the capacity, and I think the incentive, to reach out to its members (and non-member producers) to survey the State's agricultural community about those barriers. I don't think the survey should include any non-agricultural issues, about constitutional amendments, or about other policy areas on which the Bureau takes positions on behalf of its members. Find out local infrastructure barriers farmers have to maximizing their ability to sell locally. Find out what production limitations exist and what resources are needed to alleviate those limitations.

  3. How Are Statewide Institutions Involved? - Find out how much the Department of Agriculture, the WVU Extension Service, the Development Office, and other State actors are talking to each other. Is there already a forum for information sharing and a repository of best practices that exists in State government? If someone wants to start a new farmer's market and has six farms, two restaurants, and a local park board ready, willing, and able, what can the State do to encourage and facilitate getting it done?

    Is the West Virginia Grown program something to which these efforts at creation and support for local agricultural economies can attach themselves? Are there micro-grant programs that we can use here in West Virginia modeled on economic aid to other countries? Strong accountability, small capital outlay, MANY new entrepreneurs selling local food products.

    Please don't create a State task force. I've staffed them before. They produce great reports. But this is not a sexy policy area, and there's no public perception of a crisis; so the report wouldn't ever be put into effect. These agencies and actors need to be engaged by the local leaders creating the local economies. And the statewide actors need to recognize it is their responsibility to provide the technical and logistical support needed to foster innovation and further the creation of robust local economies in the State. Knowing some of the staff at Agriculture and having an up-close and personal past relationship with Extension, I have every confidence there are people there who would be thrilled to work hard on this project.

    It appears as though WVFarm2U could be the actor that pulls it all together. They have buy-in from schools and State Ag folks (but no links on the Ag site?). They have a collection of producers and products in a handy spot. But I have to admit I forgot they were out there when I first drafted the post, and didn't come across them in any of my specific research for this post.

  4. Putting Pieces Together to Create Local Infrastructure and Statewide Networks - Once those conversations have happened, once there are multiple local communities focusing on the creation of community-supported agriculture economies; the local folks who created the structures need to come together in a Statewide network to formulate best practices, form partnerships to expand and replicate to new communities, and plan outreach for that expansion effort.

    Make sure the folks running the show in the local communities are the farmers, the grocers, the restaurateurs, the farmer's market executive directors, and the small-town mayors and County Commissioners. Make sure the statewide network of communities has support from statewide actors; that you can see the forest for the trees, and that you can also take a peak at a particular tree to find out why it's growin' so good and use that elsewhere.

    That's important because I think you're creating TWO networks here. First is the network between the direct agricultural producers and their immediate communities. The second network is the meta-network created by each of those community-supported agricultural economies communicating with each other.

    The larger actors (State Agencies, Farm Bureau, Extension Service, WV Association of Counties) are critical in each place because they have 1) the capacity to facilitate local network creation by serving as a clearinghouse of information and 2) the capacity to facilitate the meta-network because their scope is Statewide and they can help bring the local communities together. Their job in this is to make sure there is a public presence for these efforts so one quick search will get a consumer all the information they need about the local agriculture in their area.
Wrapping it Up (in bacon?) and Tying it In A Bow

So there you have it. There's a problem. Locally produced OR organically produced food is healthier for you than food trucked at you from across the country. There is an imbalance in West Virginians' ability to produce and purchase enough local food products to swing the balance back. It's simply not as easy to get locally produced food in West Virginia as it should be.

Here is one blogger's set of steps to start overcoming that obstacle. There's a comment feature...go ahead and use it.


Bethie said...

Thoughtful, researched, practical, and hopefully the beginning of a long discussion around the state. Very nice!

Jessie R. said...

I know of two nascent community gardens here in Morgantown. A group, headed by Ann P., is working to install one at the King Street Park in South Park. The Wiles Hill-Highland Park Neighborhood Association is also working to get one going.

Informally, the Greenmont Neighborhood Association plants a shared plot on private land b/c the property owner doesn't want to mow it.

Don't forget about the State DHHR Farmer's Market program throuh WIC ( Eligible WIC recipients receive $20 per season to be used at farmer's markets. It's something, but a very, very small something.

The EDG said...

Thanks for addressing that goofiness about criticizing an organic garden. If someone is that threatened by a garden plot, they've got issues that run rather deep.

Really enjoy your ongoing defense of local food and keeping it real. Keep up the great work. WV needs it!

Unknown said...

The Vermont Fresh Network is dedicated to supporting and celebrating partnerships between Vermont farmers and chefs. "Dishing Up Vermont" by Tracey Medeiros demonstrates the unique bond between Vermont farmers, chefs and food producers and includes various stories from those who have contributed to the project. The book pays tribute Vermont's environmental and culinary landscapes. This book is a wonderful resource for those who support "buying local" and sustainability.

sara said...

I wish Blogger had a "like" button like Facebook. Kudos at any rate. I can't believe there are people who try to promote eating organic and farming organic as some sort of liberal agenda. I'm so naive.

Lucindaville said...

Great post. I run a small CSA for friends I worked with at The Smithsonian. They think West Virginia is local!
Check out my blog,

kitchengeeking said...

@all - Thanks for your comments.

@JessieR. - That is good news indeed. Do you know if Anne is in touch with the Dept of Ag, WVFarm2U, or the local extension agents?

@Peter - Not surprising there is a community-based network like that in Vermont. Such a great Jeffersonian heritage up there!

@Lucinda - I'd agree with some of your Smithsonian friends for part of WV. Our Eastern Panhandle is within 50 miles of the District and several producers from that part of the world, and southern Pennsylvania are fairly local to DC.

Great blog too. I love funky cookbooks from times and places gone by.

Reggie N. said...

I enjoyed reading your post. It was very detailed and full of information. I appreciate your visiting our site, Conservatives Loving Freedom, and hope you may comment as well. We are dedicated to promoting freedom and free market values.

While I concede that you are probably right given your inclusion of facts and numbers, I still see organic farming as an affront to freedom and free markets. Therefore, I must oppose organic farming.

Jobs are created by the good folks at Bayer, who are just across the river from me and have never done anything to hurt the environment or people. Organic farming, while not producing jobs, would also destroy the chemical companies who make crop protection products (not pesticides), which would eliminate jobs in our beloved Chemical Valley. Giving people a choice between organic food and healthy, pest resistant crops made by good Americans at Monsanto would serve to eliminate the latter choice. The free market works best when there are fewer choices for consumers. I know its somewhat counter-intuitive, but this is how economics works.

Anyway, I must still respectfully disagree with you and continue to oppose organic food as part of the policies promoted by Conservatives Loving Freedom. Please visit us and I look forward to more friendly debates on your site and ours :)

Pastrygirl said...

I am moving to West Virginia from Vermont and yes there is the Vermont Fresh Network and yes it is great. I hope that something like that can come together in West Virginia and WVFarm2U from what I can see is leading the way. I is so important that the community supports the local farmers, markets and even the side of the road vedors who might just have a small patch to sell. I hope that when I get to the Charleston area I can get with some people and maybe implement some of the things I learned while working with the great people at Vermont Fresh. I know there are some foodies, chefs and farmers that could make a great team.