Local Food Networks Growing in Appalachia

On Friday, March 11, local foods producers, advocates and policymakers from all over West Virginia and beyond gathered at Fairmont State University for a one-day workshop called “Strengthening Local Food Systems in Appalachia.” Hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the day provided an opportunity to learn about the status of the local food economy, which connects local farmers, ranchers and producers more directly to their consumers – whether through a grocery store, a restaurant, an elementary school or a nursing home. Participants discussed the opportunities, barriers and strategies for building on that work.  It was encouraging to see so many West Virginia farmers and producers, from the ex-Marine who decided that when he got home from Iraq that he’d start an apple orchard; to the founder of Fish Hawk Acres, a network of farmers and ranchers who supply consumers and restaurants.

Developing a local food system can have a positive impact on individuals and economies. While it’s still unknown whether local foods are more nutritious than industrial-farmed, the experiences of grade schools where local foods are served in the cafeteria show that fresher, better-tasting vegetables are more likely to get eaten. “Food deserts,” places where full-service grocery stores are hard to come by, are not just in urban areas; many rural areas are losing their grocery stores in the economic downturn as well. In Central Appalachia, where obesity rates are high and access to fresh fruits and vegetables is low, a strong local food system is a critical need.

The economic potential in Appalachia is large.  If Virginians bought just 15% of their food locally, farmers would make an extra $2.2 billion per year. The markets are large in other states too: one study found that 90% of West Virginia’s food comes from out-of-state. In Kentucky, small farmers are connecting with local schools to provide healthy lunches while getting a fair price for their produce. Kentucky State Parks are now required by law to promote local “Kentucky Proud” products in their purchasing contracts. This translates to more jobs in farming, harvesting, packing, distributing, marketing and management. In Michigan, it has been estimated that a stronger local food economy could create 30,000 jobs statewide.

A local food system supports traditional foodways. National grocery chains don’t have access to “greasy grits” pole beans or “mountain princess” tomatoes, but these heirlooms have been grown in Appalachian kitchen gardens for generations. You won’t find ramps at any major restaurants, but you can get your fill at the Ramp Festival in Tennessee. Eating local foods connects us with our heritage and helps to preserve traditional recipes, cooking techniques and growing methods that are rapidly disappearing.

Barriers do exist, however. For a small farmer, finding the time and money to package lettuce and get it to the grocery store can be impossible. Farmers’ Markets don’t exist everywhere. Producing value-added products like jams, salsas and herb mixes is challenging when you only have your own small kitchen. The complex world of food safety regulations, organic certification, grant applications, institutional food purchasing requirements, consumer needs and marketing is difficult to navigate when you’re just starting out.

The Central Appalachian Network is helping small farmers and producers overcome some of those barriers. Rural Action, working in southeast Ohio, hosts a produce auction and provides grants and training to small farmers. Appalachian Sustainable Development runs Appalachian Harvest, which buys produce from its member farmers in southwest Virginia and Tennessee, packs it, and ships it to several grocery stores in the region. These are just a few examples of what the six CAN member organizations – which include the Center for Economic Options, Natural Capital Investment Fund, MACED and ACENet – are doing to build Appalachian food systems from the ground up.

Check back with ATI to find out about local foods in Appalachia, and to keep up on CAN’s projects. Until then, how do local foods fit into your lifestyle or community? Are there any good producers operating in your area? Where’s the best place to get a great, local tomato come summertime?