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Mountain State checks its ‘road map for the food economy’

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What good is a map if no one unfolds it to reference its visual key to the way things intersect or run parallel?

The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, launched by the West Virginia Community Development Hub in August 2010, developed a "Road Map for the Food Economy" from 2011-2012.

During a conference Jan. 29 at Bridgeport Conference Center, stakeholders checked the map.

Food & Farm Coalition Program Manager Savanna Lyons said the past year has been "big," with more businesses getting involved in the farming sector and more support structures in place for farmers and food businesses.

But, Lyons said, there are always gaps to close and room to grow.

"It's always hard to compare West Virginia to other states because we're so unique," Lyons said. "One of the things that's unique about us is we have such a high amount of farmer per person — I think we may have more farms per person than any other state in the country.

"A lot of us are probably not taking as much profit off the farm as we could be, so there's huge opportunity for growth with the land people already have that is already agricultural land."

The conference included lawmakers, agency officials and investors. Four work groups also showed off the information they had gathered throughout the previous year: processing infrastructure; aggregation and distribution; teaching youth through agriculture; and improving access to healthy local food.

The first step in the creation of the map came with six regional roundtables throughout the state. The first "Road Map for the Food Economy" summit took place in January 2012 with more than 300 people in attendance.

Lyons said right now is the prime time for West Virginia to test how strong its food economy can be because farmers are starting to shift their sales and look at the variety of ways to sell their goods. She said working on the relationships among the industry is "a delicate part of the growth we're in right now."

One big example of how big an impact farming can have on West Virginia's economy is in the Eastern Panhandle.

Martinsburg's VA Medical Center spent more than $23,000 on local food since it launched a local food purchasing program, Lyons said.

"That's serious money," she said. "When we look at what kinds of opportunities are out there, we see that if we multiply that number by all the hospitals in the state, that's a big opportunity."

Lyons also credited West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources started food programs to encourage shopping at farmers markets.

"Hospitals, restaurants and other institutions — they're kind of providing leadership and providing big demand," Lyons said.

But barriers still exist, and the annual conference helps all the stakeholders talk about what changes they can make.

One of last year's problems is already fading, Lyons said.

"More farmers markets are getting interested in taking food stamps and credit cards," she said. "When you take food stamps and credit cards, that obviously expands your customer base, which means you can attract a wider variety of types of people, and it also means you can make more money.

"The number of farmers markets signed up for EBT programs has about doubled since the summer of 2012."

Lyons said the state still needs more farmers, and the West Virginia Department of Education has added about five agricultural education programs in high schools throughout the state.

And following the map from the ground to the table will uncover a few other roadblocks.

Lyons said right now the state doesn't have enough meat producers, which creates a bottleneck-type of problem in the process.

"One of the things we're studying and talking about … is infrastructure challenges," Lyons said. "And this shows the opportunity that's not necessarily money. If you look at meat processing, there is job creation there."

Lyons said an Iowa study showed that small meat processing facilities can support about 7.4 processing jobs for every 1,000 cattle produced in a year.

Lyons said she is hopeful that more collaboration will build with each conference. This year will mark the first "Road Map for the Food Economy Update" the group will publish every year, along with a "Food Economy Score Card" to show how certain indicators change each year.