This report begins with a compiled selection of excerpts from Community Work Sessions held throughout southwest Virginia.
“And food access, it’s still, it’s a transportation issue as well, I don’t know if we’ve got that, we talk about access to food a lot throughout the region, and even in, I’m sure in Southwest Virginia and North Carolina and Kentucky, because we’re such a rural area, we don’t have transportation in so many of our rural areas, and so that’s a challenge, it’s a huge challenge, you have food but the access is just, they have no way to get there or the resources to do it. Especially children in the summer or the elderly, or the working poor.”
“If you walk in a chain store around a larger college town you don't hardly recognize it, versus one out here in the rural areas. They cater to that and they've got the cheeses and the wines and all that in there, it’s like walking in a totally different store.”
“The challenge that I think we all face is that our financial and economic systems don't work, our financial systems value money and profit over true values of what is good and what’s needed and what human need is all about. Because when you're driving after nothing but profit, local food doesn't make money, it doesn't. Without subsidy, this system we're talking about people can't afford to pay the prices that it really costs to grow quality local food. So that’s the fault of the economic system. That's not our fault.”
“I actually signed on for SNAP, I have my own SNAP reader, because one of the fortunate things that I came across in my readings is that farmers qualify, because they're direct marketers, to have their own equipment, don't rely on the farmers' market to institute this procedure, do it yourself. Because you can. And you get free equipment as a farmer. So I was very proud of that. But the accessibility issue is, even though I advertise, last year I only had two people use it.”
“Well I don't know why I'm here, but I'll talk anyway. Cause the last thing I want to do is market my own beef. We have 160 cow commercial beef herd and about 25 registered Herefords. We artificially breed every cow send them out to Nebraska to retain ownership in a feed yard. We try to hit the upper 2/3rds choice CAB prime market so when they go to Manhattan to get your cheese, I want to sell them a $100 steak. But I know the reason I'm here is because we're trying to raise high production cattle, but we're doing it on a low input, trying to graze 365 days a year.”
"Lets not just feed the people, lets also address the broader needs that they have.”
“So one of the challenges that is, see and this where it’s a bit more heart breaking, sometimes our older folks have to decide whether they buy medicine or whether they buy food. And those often, it’s a hard choice. And when people say that that’s not occurring, that’s not true. So they’re trying to figure out how can they afford to continue to buy nutritional food and to still buy their medications and to strike that balance.”
“Yeah. I mean I can find out from [Carly] and [Tori] exactly who they dealt with, if you want me to do that.”
“We don’t meet like this again for a while, and there’s other waivers or other things out there, how do we tell each other? I mean, how do you all find out about it? You know it’s really tough to bring everybody together.
Well and just coming up with a directory of whose here and email contacts I think would be helpful, even a sense about what our jobs are.
“You know, you listen to everything that has been said in the room and everybody has different needs and different desires to accomplish the work that we need to do. So I’m really fascinated by, "how can we… harness that and how can we make use of that to create a system of communication that is both open and accessible to everybody.”
One thing I think would really benefit this community here, is processing. We've talked about this a lot. You never know when you're going to have that humidity spike on broccoli. You never know when you're going to get them two thunderstorms that come in this afternoon; it had been dry for a month. And now you've got all the sudden it rains four inches and the humidity is up instead of having 1,000 or 2,000 boxes you've got 5,000 boxes. What do you do with it? Because you've been controlling your crop with irrigation water. Everybody, Food City, or whoever we're dealing with only needs x amount and we've had it controlled. So what do you do with the excess it got ready?
“I work for the planning district commission and I think what I'm excited about is the opportunity for government to be involved in an area that is usually a community based or profit sort of area. But I think our goal has become helping food-based systems, not getting the policy landscape and convening groups and facilitating the process. So I'm excited I'm on the part right now… Because it is a huge need.”
“What is the chamber of commerce going to be involved in this--Right? But a couple years ago, some folks approached us about taking on the management of the farmers' market and that’s these folks right here. And these folks are the ones that are really responsible for it. But we took it on, because you're looking at micro businesses.”
“ Yeah there has been one facility built in the state of Virginia in the last 30 years, 1 facility. So that sorta gives you an idea.
They are doing exceptionally well. They expanded. They sorta opened it up and came in with a non-profit to do some things that they, just besides the killing and packing, they started doing bag ready things: smoking and sausages and all of those kinds of things. So that's the next big thing from the standpoint of making a profit. The issue is, the problem is the overhead is pretty expensive to build one. Ok? So you have to run so many animals through there, just to cover your expenses. And you have to get that up and going before you can get into the further processing and value added stuff. So you know, if there is a way, that all of this, however could be started from a small scale and cut in stages or whatever, you know. We need ideas.”
“What I'm hearing with this model is you know, so many people are focused on local food, and yet, in order to make the scale work, we're talking about taking this and shipping this off. Even with some of the bigger vegetable producers, we're talking about getting to the volume, we're on the highway, we're shipping it to markets that are going to pay more money for it. And so in one way, that contradicts the same local food effort, where we're trying to grow food that stays in our area, feeds our local folks, and then trying to get a decent price for that, to where our farmers can stay farmers and grow here for our local community and at the same time, our local community can afford local food. So how do we build our local community and infrastructure and teach our value, get people to value what we're doing with local food as well as scaling up and shipping it off.”
“I'll just start with a positive. That is all I will say is the positive, because you don't want to hear about challenges because it would take too long. But what I'm most proud of and what I'm most excited about is this very moment. This … you all coming, you all seeing value in this. And just this conversation. It is very moving and hopefully it will move all of our work forward and advance us all. Not only professionally but as individuals, as people.”
The Southwest (SW) Virginia Community Food Security Assessment was conducted by a joint partnership between the Appalachian Foodshed Project and the Appalachian Virginia Food Systems Network (AVFSN) (formerly known as the Appalachian Virginia Food Systems Council). The goal of the assessment is to support the on-going work of SW VA community food security practitioners, particularly by enhancing the on-going strategy and development of the AVFSN as a strategic vehicle for supporting and conducting community food security initiatives.
To reach this goal, a team of community and university partners developed a process that included key informant interviews and three regional community work sessions, with the aim of developing a strategic roadmap for community food security work in southwest Virginia. Though this process, the team has identified a series of recommendations. This summary briefly outlines the logic behind the assessment, the methodology used, and an overview of the recommendations that we are developing from this work.
The logic of our assessment process begins with the state of community food work in southwest Virginia in 2011, the year that the Appalachian Foodshed Project was created. Firstly, we define community food work as the place-specific efforts that lead to holistic improvements in food security, or what is known as community food security. To guide and evaluate our progress toward community food security, we have been using the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (WMCFS), a planning and evaluation framework developed by a large team of national food system practitioners (Abi-Nader et al., 2009). A community food secure locality would take account for the following six food system “fields” developed by Abi-Nader and team.
- Justice and Fairness*
- Strong Communities*
- Thriving Local Economies
- Healthy People
- Ecological Sustainability
- Vibrant Farms
*The authors of the WMCFS have noted that the Justice and Fairness and Strong Communities should be considered sub-fields within the subsequent fields (3-6).
We were interested in understanding the state of this kind of community food work, in SW VA, because it could help us better see and subsequently catalyze pockets of possibility in the work that is on-going in the region.
In southwest Virginia there are a number of organizations and institutions that are engaging in aspects of community food work, but there had been little integration across organizations along multiple fields of the Whole Measures. The Appalachian Virginia Food Systems Council, first initiated in 2012 has been an effort to integrate community food work across the region with the goal of more integrated and strategic approaches and greater impact.
Community food assessments typically have been conducted at a very local level, i.e. X County, the Village of Y, or Neighborhood Z. Having a more regional scope, the 17 counties in southwest Virginia, and are connected to a project that covers, all of West Virginia and 19? counties in western North Carolina, we realized that the wider scope of the assessment called for a different approach.
This regional approach to assessing community food security integrated well with the growing interest in food-systems-change collaboration across Appalachian Virginia. Additionally, much of the literature on food assessments was written in the late 1990s or early 2000s. The state of food system change in 2014 was considerably different than that of the previous decade and a half. Though food system change efforts are uneven throughout the region, there are a number of organizations in southwest Virginia that aim to do one or several types of community food work. Local inventories and assessments might still start dialogue at the local level, but to work broadly across the spectrum of community food work, and for more systemic change, we abducted that more regional integration was needed. The dispersion of resources and assets over a largely rural region has underscored the need for regional integration of activities.
The methodology and method for the assessment project have been iterative and evolving. We began a community-university development process in 2011. To date, the main components of this process have been building a shared understanding and assessment plan, conducting key informant interviews, and implementing community work sessions. These pieces have been woven together by numerous meetings of community and university partners--the assessment team.
Briefly, they key informant interviews were conducted by a team of four university and community researchers for the purpose of better understanding how organizations in our region are addressing community food security. There was good representation geographically, and by food system sector and type of organization (nonprofit, for-profit, private and public, local and state government). Guiding questions focused on understanding their existing collaborations, identifying pressing issues around food and agriculture, strategies that are working for them, opportunities and barriers to creating change in our regional food system, and how they are addressing people’s ability to access food. Interviews were primarily conducted via the phone. The interviewer audio-recorded and took notes and verified with each informant their identified top themes that emerged. The primary findings from these 26 interviews was that there was a consistent need for greater communication and collaborative networking among food system practitioners in the region.
The community work sessions were borne out of these findings and subsequent meetings of the assessment team. It was determined that the AVFSN should be the primary medium for facilitating communication and collaboration. Three community partners from the AVFSN agreed to each host a community work session in their general region:
- Blue Ridge Plateau - Hosts: Grayson Landcare and SustainFloyd
- Greater New River Valley: Montgomery Co. Cooperative Extension, SO Fresh, and the Independence Farmers’ Market
- Far Southwest Virginia: Appalachian Sustainable Development
The goal of these work sessions was to better understand how current opportunities and synergies exist in southwest VA food systems work, and where potential synergies and transformative openings might exist. Virginia Tech served as a university partner to support the design and implementation of each session.
In terms of community food work, the guiding research questions were:
1) What kinds of food system opportunities are taking place,
2) Where the synergies are happening and with whom,
3) Ways we can best connect across the region to enhance these synergies
The community partners hosted and designed the sessions with input from a team of Virginia Tech researchers. Accordingly, each work session was unique to local needs and vision. The Blue Ridge Plateau and Greater New River Valley groups completed their sessions in late Spring 2015. The Far Southwest Virginia group held their session in early October, 2015.
Each work session has been recorded and transcribed. An analysis team, composed of university and NGO partners*, has analyzed the data, using the work session goals and two conceptual frameworks: the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (Abi-Nader et al., 2009) and the Community Capitals (Emery, Fey, & Flora, 2006). These frameworks have helped us broadly categorize the food system opportunities that are taking place. In addition, drawing on network theory and complexity science, we are able to point to existing and potential synergies in SW VA community food work.
* Jerry Moles, Grayson LandCare; Kelli Scott, Montgomery County Cooperative Extension; Kim Niewolny, Virginia Tech; Phil D’Adamo-Damery, Virginia Tech
Food system Synergies and Opportunities - Current
It is important to note that the information from the community work sessions is not exhaustive or particularly representative of the whole of food systems work taking place in the region. The attendees were invited by community hosts, and thus reflect the scope and energies of these champion organizations. Accordingly, the opportunities and synergies are reflective of these invited attendees.
A brief summary of three current opportunities and synergies in SW Virginia:
Synergy A: Financial capital and the value of vibrant farms and thriving local economies.
Agriculture as economic development is a dominant point of synergy in food systems work in southwest Virginia. A large number of organizations and individuals are focused on connecting financial capital with the agricultural supply chain, whether that is through local processing and cost-savings to local farmers, or through access to capital for new agricultural ventures. This synergy is strengthened by strong connections between the Virginia Department of Agriculture and southwest Virginia. This synergy is made manifest in built infrastructure like the Produce Aggregator: the Hillsville Farmers’ Market and the numerous local farmers’ markets spread throughout the region.
Synergy B: Vibrant Farms and Social Capital
Related to Synergy A, there is a great deal of social capital connected to the value of vibrant farms. A significant portion of the individuals and organizations working within the realm of community food security in southwest Virginia are doing so in a way that is directly connected to building the vibrancy of local farms. There is wide variation in the ways that this commitment is made actual--some social clusters are focused on equipping producers for local markets and institutional selling, while other are working to connect local farmers with national, and as feasible, international markets.
Synergy C: Cultural Capital and Justice & Fairness and Strong Communities
The community work sessions indicated cultural capital around ideas of justice and fairness and strong communities. Participants engaged in a variety of activities and occupations referenced these embedded values. The values were manifested in a diversity of ways across the multiple references--working conditions, labor practices, senior advocacy, faith communities, etc.
Synergy D: Human Capital across the Whole Measures
Across southwest Virginia, and stretching in to the surrounding states, there is a vast wealth of human capital related to food systems and the six Whole Measures for Community Food Systems. A wide variety of organizations and individuals are involved in a diversity of food system efforts. Some organizations have been around for decades, others are just emerging. There are organizations and individuals working with pre-schoolers, senior citizens, and nearly every age group in between. There are individuals with detailed knowledge of community-level programming and advocacy, individuals who are thinking strategically about regional markets, and individuals exploring questions about systems-level collaboration. This is a synergy with a rich potential that may be realized through strategic and concerted communication and information sharing efforts.
Ways we can best connect across the region to enhance these synergies
In preface to this section: The Appalachian Foodshed Project was funded by the USDA to “enhance community food security.” As a team of university and community practitioners, we have agreed to make sense of community food security via the Whole Measures for Community Food Systems (WMCFS) and Community Capitals. This means that a community food secure system is one that is attempting to leverage movement in all six fields of the WMCFS and is able to build upon assets across each of the seven community capitals, albeit in various ways.
The areas of synergy listed previously are important, they are areas where there is already some level of critical mass--there is social capital to support their continued work (not to mention, financial capital and growing cultural and political capital).
Much of the current synergies are clustered around two Whole Measures: Thriving Local Economies and Vibrant Farms. This raises the questions: If we are to enhance community food security in SW VA, how can we begin to bring the four other measures into these conversations? How can we infuse the cultural commitment to justice and fairness into these conversations? How can the idea of strong communities have greater representation?
The long-term stability and sustainability of the economic and agricultural development could be strengthened, by bringing the four remaining Whole Measures, Healthy People, Ecological Sustainability, Justice and Fairness, and Strong Communities, into the conversation. Infusing the latter four measures also brings some possibility for systemic changes, creating a food system that is more equitable and reliable for the whole of southwest Virginia.
We see potential to create conditions and openings for new movement in three places
1. Strengthening the existing synergies, building on existing human capital
Asking the questions:
How do we create and hold spaces for knowledge sharing across regional practitioners?
- I.e. how can a group in Grayson County be more abreast, and less likely to duplicate efforts in Scott County?
How might we lower the participation and financial costs of information sharing across the region?
2. Initiating and sustaining concerted efforts to nurture new synergies that encompass the broader WMCFS.
Asking the questions:
- How do we create spaces where diverse practitioners (from under represented WMCFS) can collaborate on complex and real regional food system issues?
- How might we take a more ecological approach to food system change? Looking at the webs of cause that lead to food insecurity in SWVA.
Who are the “unlikely” partners for food systems change? How do we integrate our work with theirs?
I.e. what sort of synergies might their be between community food security:
- Affordable housing
- Sustainable jobs
- Anti-racism organizing
- Fair labor practices
- Access to safe drinking water
- I.e. what sort of synergies might their be between community food security:
3. Monitoring and evaluating these processes (1 & 2)
Asking the question:
- How might southwest VA food system practitioners, via the AVFSN, establish approaches and techniques for monitoring progress in the efforts to initiate and strengthen existing synergies in and across the six Whole Measures for Community Food Systems?
As community food security in southwest Virginia moves forward, it is our hope that the work of this assessment lends some initial structure to this conversation. How can the AVFSN facilitate conditions and structure for asking the questions posed in the previous section. How might these questions be used as a ground zero for asking questions about community food security in SW VA?
The AVFSN-AFP team met on December 2, 2015, in Draper, Virginia, to share updates of the AVFSN oversight committee (i.e., draft plan of work and mission and goals) and the SW VA community food security assessment, led by the community work session planning and analysis group. Together, the group shared their learnings and resources, developed over the past months, to "workshop" the recommendations for collaboratively building greater community food security in southwest Virginia. The group consented to moving forward with the growth of the AVFSN to enact the recommendations that center on the synergies listed in this report. Specific actions the AVFSN oversight committee will address in January: 1) supporting SW Virginia information sharing and networking, with emphasis on Local Wiki; 2) plan for regional AVFSN common messaging and outreach strategies to connect with familiar and new organizations and groups ; 3) plan for regional AVFSN "road mapping" gathering; 4) consider the hiring of coordinator to enact immediate outreach, information sharing, and messaging needs.
Phil D'Adamo-Damery, Kim Niewolny, Kelli Scott, and Jerry Moles will reconvene as the analysis team to elaborate on the four synergies to develop a proposal for the creation of a dynamic "SW VA Regional Road Mapping" document. This document has been requested by the AVFSN and will be completed before March, 2016.
SWVA CFSA Assessment Team
Meredith Ledlie Johnson
Facilitator: Tracy Kunkler, Principal Social Profit Strategies