By Jason Von Kundra of Sprouting Hope in Marion, VA
Nearly 100 organizations from the public, private, and non-profit sectors gathered today to take steps in building capacity throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia as a follow up to our initial meeting in April. The holistic approach to making positive change in our food system started with a presentation by Dr. Randy Wykoff on the health, social, and economic challenges of our region and how food interconnects to these issues. Central Appalachia suffers disproportionately from lower life expectancy and other basic quality of life and health indicators compared to the rest of the country. Historically the first response is to increase medical care for the region but we are learning that a lack of medical care is not the biggest problem. According to Dr. Wykoff’s research, it is social and behavioral influences.
This framed our conversation around how we can collaborate to reverse these trends through our food system. The discussion focused on the following five areas:
1. Food Access: Improving access to healthy, fresh, and local food options for all members of our community
· Involved groups: community gardens, food banks, food pantries, growers, public health, transportation, NGOs, Department of Human Services, schools
2. Food Production, Marketing, and Distribution: Connecting growers to local and regional markets for their products
· Involved groups: growers, buyers of food, agricultural professionals, NGOs, government entities
3. Food and Health Systems: Promoting and increasing access to locally grown, healthy food to healthcare recipients
· Involved groups: hospital foundations, public health, clinics, nursing homes, retirement communities, accountable care organizations
4. Policy and Economic Development: Creating and advocating for better policies to support our regional food system and economy
· Involved groups: : economic development boards, chamber of commerce, state and federal entities, politicians and/or staff, schools and other organizations with food regulations to promote locally-grown food
5. Workforce Development and Education: Creating opportunities and training for an entrepreneurship-minded food and agriculture workforce
· Involved groups: high schools, vocational, higher education, workforce investment boards, economic development, chambers of commerce, NGOs who are training young people, reentry programs
Each of these five focuses developed into working groups to lead the effort within the corresponding sectors while connecting the work to the larger picture through the many intersections between theses areas of focus.
Sprouting Hope participated primarily in the Food Access and Food Production, Marketing and Distribution working groups. While the groups involved a great diversity of participants at all levels from grassroots to institutional, common themes emerged with an understanding that our approach must be community based and appropriate on the local level. Three major next steps for our working groups are increased communication and collaboration among stakeholders, training and educational programs, and separate meetings among the working groups along with a large gathering before May.
Antoinette Goodrich, Farmer at Laughing Water Farm, felt today’s event was also a “great opportunity to network with others.” The purpose of these events are primarily to build capacity and forge new connections. While the nuts and bolts of our work together is still in development, we do know that if we are going to creating lasting positive change in our food system, we must work together.