October 17, 2019–Over the summer, Clay County in West Virginia lost its only grocery store. In McDowell County, the Walmart has left, and there is a 65-mile stretch between Elkins and Marlinton without a single grocery store. It’s the same story at Charleston’s East End and Huntington’s Fairfield—fresh, healthy food is hard to find. It is happening throughout the state as thousands of people are not able to easily access healthy food.
The issue is compounded by food insecurity. Feeding America’s “Map the Meal Gap” report estimates that one in seven people in West Virginia faces hunger. And in this state of great beauty with its mountains and rivers, its rural communities fare far worse when it comes to hunger.
While not having enough money to buy food is a major factor in whether one goes hungry, whether you have a grocery store within a reasonable distance is sometimes overlooked. It is particularly relevant in a state where nearly 25% of the population lives more than 10 minutes from a retailer offering fresh produce. West Virginia Foodlink estimates that almost half of the state’s census blocks lack access to fresh produce.
In many communities in the state, independently owned grocers are struggling under the pressures of retail consolidation. These struggles are paired with the demographic realities of serving small rural markets across a state facing downward economic pressures in a post-coal, post-manufacturing landscape.
In this context, it is imperative to strengthen a network of grocery stores that can offer healthy food options to all West Virginians regardless of where they live or their level of income. It is also necessary to explore options beyond traditional grocery stores, particularly in more rural communities.
The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition is working to do just that. In partnership with organizations across the state, it is building sustainable solutions to food access. One of these solutions is the West Virginia Grocer Lab Project, which is providing financial and technical support to three grocery retail projects in three different socio-economic and geographical contexts–Wheeling, Princeton, and Pocahontas and Randolph counties.
Wheeling is home to the Grow Ohio Valley Project, a year-round nonprofit farmer’s market that brings local-grown fresh and staple foods to a community in the middle of two USDA-classified low access census tracts. It provides the only year-round outlet for local farmers and food producers to sell their products.
Princeton is the gateway to the southern Appalachian coalfields. The town’s historic Mercer district has seen a resurgence in recent years with new businesses, but the community has always wanted a grocery store in the area. It is here that local entrepreneurs Will and Emily Lambert of the Blue Ridge Bee Company, are opening their first physical store. The Lamberts are renovating an existing building that had been vacant for more than a decade. Once it opens, the Blue Ridge Bee Company will go from an online-only business to having a storefront that will include grocery products beyond the current line of honey and other beekeeping products.
Through their work with West Virginia Grocer Lab Project, the Lamberts will be plugged into a budding regional food supply chain network that will equip them with mostly locally sourced groceries. Plugging in to the network will help them lower inventory costs and strengthen the grocer’s long-term viability.
Pocahontas and Randolph are mountainous and largely rural counties. Residents and visitors mostly purchase fresh produce from a single convenience store. The alternative is a grocery store that is over an hour away. In this region the Grocer Lab is using a nontraditional distribution method. They are aggregating produce and products from local farms and food businesses and placing them in coolers in staple businesses in three locations.
Logistics are complex in making these projects happen, as is documenting the best practices that can be used to understand and replicate successes. Flexible capital is also critical in these early stages of testing nontraditional models that make healthy food easier to find in sparsely populated areas. The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition is partnering with the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab to study these projects to explore replicability.
Resources like the federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), funded by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by Reinvestment Fund, offer much needed assistance to explore ways to reduce barriers to access. Last month, the Food & Farm Coalition was selected as one of 10 projects across the country to receive financial assistance from HFFI’s inaugural grants program.
We have a long way to go in West Virginia to make sure all families can access healthy food, regardless of income and where they live. But along the way, we are finding solutions that are also supporting local farmers and foods businesses. Together, we are creating a stronger, more sustainable food system.
Spencer Moss is executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition.
This commentary appeared in the Daily Yonder on October 17, 2019.