Monday, August 13, 2012

Produce in Parkersburg: A Regional Success Story

PARKERSBURG, WV - As the assets of Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture program continue to flourish – including sales to-date up 57% at the Chesterhill Produce Auction (CPA), and the continued expansion of Country Fresh Stops – one community in West Virginia is now beginning to see the signs of a blossoming local food economy.

Local and Institutional Foods Specialist Bob Fedyski is working to increase access to fresh, local foods in nearby Parkersburg, West Virginia through the creation of a local food distribution system. The Parkersburg market has been a target of Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture and we are now successfully developing partnerships, with the most visible being at the West Virginia University-Parkersburg (WVU-P) campus where a start-up farmer’s market is sparking a new wave of local foods in the area.

The first link in the West Virginia chain formed while Fedyski was connecting with others passionate about local food systems in the Parkersburg area. He met Megan Kahoa, the Health and Wellness Community Coordinator at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in December at an Athens Food Policy Council meeting. And it was Kahoa who connected Fedyski to Pamela Santer, Wellness Coordinator at WVU-P. Santer, “a dynamo in the community” according to Fedyski, approaches student wellness as “whole body health.” In her determination to increase healthy food access for the campus community, she knew there was a better way to get healthy, local foods to students: expose them to a farmer’s market right on campus. 

Kahoa knew that Rural Action was delivering food from the Chesterhill Produce Auction all over the region, and had also heard that Marietta schools began purchasing from the CPA, so she introduced Fedyski to Santer, who didn’t just want healthy food sold at the market – she wanted to support a local food economy. Purchasing produce from the global food system would be one thing, getting just-picked fruit and vegetables from 40 miles away would be another. Santer wanted students to have access to healthy eating and living options while positively impacting the regional food system.

The three talked over the course of several weeks, including a WVU-P field trip to the CPA, and opened the Tuesday afternoon market in front of the campus’s student center in late June. Using funds generated by the WVU-P Health and Wellness Club, Santer’s team, which includes students and staff, has purchased hundreds of dollars in local produce from the CPA since opening. It generally sells out, and what isn’t sold is sold at-cost to group homes for the disabled. Whether they’re selling potatoes, cabbage, or fresh melons, those on campus have been unable to resist stopping by the stand. “The food catches their attention really quickly,” said Fedyski about the customers who stop by.

The diverse student population at WVU-P has presented a challenge for healthy food access in the past. “It’s a wide variety – some fresh out of high school, some middle of the road and going back to school, lots of parents, and a lot of older people – those who have lost their jobs and even retirees,” said Kahoa. The farmers market in downtown Parkersburg is miles away from the campus, and many of the students either rely on others for rides or work full-time and can’t make the mid-week market. But lack of interest in healthy, local food isn’t to blame – it’s lack of access, which is the market’s most important function. “We’re not just selling things to sell them, but helping students realize cooking doesn’t have to be expensive or complex,” explained Santer. A major milestone at the market will be the upcoming acceptance of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. The non-traditional student body has many food assistance recipients; this is one of the consumer groups who Santer and Fedyski hope to reach.

On a larger scale, the market is also a gateway – a starting point – for producers in the Parkersburg area to reach new markets. Once it’s evident that there is a demand for healthy, local food, farmers and producers in the area will be able to expand accordingly and further strengthen a growing system. Food from Ohio is only part of the plan – getting local demand to increase local production is the other part of this undertaking.

Santer already sees possibilities with expanding the offerings at the market just from Ohio-based producers. Baked goods from Crumb’s Bakery in Athens and fresh artisan cheeses from Laurel Valley Creamery in Gallipolis are making their way to the students and faculty at the campus market. With Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture’s new refrigerated delivery truck up and running, even larger quantities can be brought to the campus, and additional customers can be served. And it’s just in time. Faculty will return to the campus the week of August 12 and Fedyski expects purchases for the market from the produce auction to double. When students return soon after, demand will likely continue to skyrocket, according to Santer.

In the end, money isn’t the only goal for Santer, Fedyski, or any of the partners in Rural Action’s local food economy work. What they care about is the triple bottom line: creating a system – a value chain – that sustains itself and benefits the economy, the community and the environment equally. It’s this value-based approach that drives Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture program and its ultimate goal: to support local food systems so that they can grow and continue to benefit our economy. Soon fruits and vegetables from the Chesterhill Produce Auction won’t be the only ones at the WVU-P campus market. The aim is for producers in the Parkersburg area to be able to fill the needs of consumers and increase the portion of the market held by local foods. With Rural Action’s help, Parkersburg is one step closer to meeting that end.

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