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Local crops vital for health, economy, advocates say

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Farmers, food processors, distributors, health professionals, extension agents, farmers markets, restaurants, youth groups, religious organizations and institutions all feed people. 

And they're all a part of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition.  Members of all the groups gathered for the coalition's "Road Map for the Food Economy" conference, which took place at Embassy Suites Jan. 28 in Charleston.

Lately, farmers markets are cropping up all over West Virginia, giving state residents more fresh and healthy food options.

And still many more may be on the horizon.

"Statewide there are about 90 markets, and just a few years ago, there were far fewer," said Elizabeth Spellman, executive director for the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. "It's a great venue for someone to get into the food world business.

Food businesses are becoming more viable in our state,Spellman said. 

"We're pouring a lot of energy into helping producers take advantage of the amazing opportunities to produce more local food. There's a huge demand for locally grown food."

Spellman added that school gardens are popping up in many places.

"The farm-to-school movement is growing like crazy," she said. "Even students are making a lot of money, growing produce and selling it to their schools. 

"The entrepreneurship, or agri-preneurship if you will, is really increasing."  

The coalition's goals were presented at the conference, and they include:

1. Youth and new farmers participate in the agricultural economy

2. Institutions and schools buy local healthy foods

3. The public consumes healthy local food at a household level

4. Local farmers increase their income and are profitable

"There are so many partners in this," Spellman said. "We're celebrating all of the work that has been done collectively throughout the state. There's a room full of stakeholders and food advocates here helping to build strong food economies. We are talking about what the next steps are in regards to the food economy.

"There's a lot of energy behind it."

Featured speakers at the event shared success stories and hopes for the future of food.

"We need to communicate better and make an effort to work together," Bekki Leigh of the Office of Child Nutrition shared, while pointing to a project in Tucker County. "There are young students there, growing and processing green beans to a value-added product. 

"We're going to have the same thing in Monroe and Braxton counties soon."

Leigh encouraged food producers to contact the food service directors at their county school boards.

"Schools are buying more healthy, local foods," she said. "About $500,000 worth has been purchased locally this school year already."  

Dr. Jamie Jeffrey, representing KEYS 4 Healthy Kids, also is a pediatrician in Charleston. 

The KEYS 4 Healthy Kids program focuses on "5-2-1-0," which encourages children and adults to eat five servings of fruits or vegetables, limit screen time to two hours or less, participate in one hour of physical activity and have zero sugary or sweet beverages — all on a daily basis.

Jeffrey stressed the importance for West Virginians to "increase the state economic incentives for local farmers and local food," and to "increase exposure to consumers to fresh local food."

The success of Wild Ramp, a locally grown food market in Huntington was hailed by Gail Patton, executive director of Unlimited Future, Inc.

"Wild Ramp has returned $350,000 to its producers," she announced, adding that about 90 percent of the 121 producers come from within a 50 mile radius of Huntington.

Patton urged participants to increase business literacy regarding food and farms; increase the ability of producers to access utilize affordable processing and distribution; and increase the number and type of local food marketing outlets and opportunities.

Working group presentations and an audience question and answer period also were offered during the event. 

Work groups included Youth and School Gardens, Improving Access to Healthy Local Food, meat Processing and West Virginia Farmers Market Association: affiliate policy group.

Closing remarks were given by Walt Helmick, commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

The West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition website is wvfoodandfarm.org.