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Untangling the Complexities of Food

WRITTEN BY OLIVIA MILLER

Food on table and woman thinking

When we walk into a grocery store and pick up our produce, we rarely acknowledge those who grow, process and transport our food, nor do we realize the conditions they are working under to make it all appear on the shelves every day. We don’t often think about the ways our food system is organized, the way it produces hunger and how it leaves some people with more access to nutritious foods than others.

Bradley Wilson, founder and director of West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab and associate professor of geography in the Department of Geology and Geography, is working on the front lines with alumni, students and community members to bridge the gap between food producers and consumers while raising awareness of the many inequities that currently undergird the food system.

“Food is basic, but it is also where you see these inequalities playing themselves out so clearly,” Wilson said. “To us in the Food Justice Lab, it’s also about really ensuring that these conversations are happening and that they’re happening in a full throated and vocal way.”

The Food Justice Lab housed in the Department of Geology and Geography provides a space for research, strategy development and community action focused on challenging food system inequality.

Over the past five years, the Food Justice Lab has evolved from the development of research programs oriented toward understanding the problem of food access to collaborating with partners across West Virginia to address those problems directly.

“A lot of what the lab does is try to harness and connect with people, and then use what is at our disposal to help elevate and support the development of strategies and to support people for food system change,” Wilson said.

Some of the most notable accomplishments that have come out of the lab are FIRSTHAND Cooperative, a fair trade, worker-owned coffee company, WV FOOD LINK, a comprehensive map of West Virginia that connects people in the state to the nearest food outlet and the Nourishing Networks program, a community food access planning workshop and curriculum.

MORE THAN MAPS

Through WV FOODLINK, Wilson and his team found that 33 percent of West Virginia residents live in a food desert. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is an area lacking access to fresh fruit, vegetables and other healthful whole foods, where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the population resides more than one mile from a grocery store.

“It’s not just that we’re researching for the sake of creating a map about food access in West Virginia,” said Robert Simmons, the lab’s media relations coordinator and a senior advertising major. “The lab is also saying, ‘We have this map. We know this about West Virginia. How can we address these issues?’ Then, we can actually go to a community and present the map and ask, ‘What can we do about this?’”

The database has mapped 550 food assistance agencies, 700 schools and over 2,000 food retailers to understand the food access landscape across the state. This process has enabled the Food Justice Lab to speak to policy makers and communicate data about potential impacts of food and farming legislation. The map is used by social workers, pantry directors, foodbanks, policy makers, nutritionists, West Virginia residents, WVU Extension Service agents and others.

“It’s truly accompaniment research at the core,” Wilson said. “It’s about collaborating with individuals to really address the most pressing problems of the day and realizing that it doesn’t end with the completion of a report or a publication. Rather, accompaniment is something that happens over many years or potentially even decades of development.”

After the development of WV FOODLINK, the Food Justice Lab established Nourishing Networks, a program designed to bring together community members to understand the effects of food policy, develop evidence-based plans and put them into action.

Launched in spring 2017, over 300 people have gone through the program in six West Virginia counties: Calhoun, Fayette, Logan, Wayne, Wood and Wetzel. During a workshop, participants are asked to use the tools developed through the WV FOODLINK project to identify barriers to food access and then collectively identify assets that inform strategies to address the healthy food access problems they have identified.

According to Wilson, a workshop will usually identify 75 to 100 barriers to accessing food in a county. At the conclusion, the Nourishing Networks program provides a county-action team with a grant to implement their strategy.

“We ask them what they see as the key problems, and then we bring our expertise to the table,” Wilson said. “It’s really a complementary process where we are accompanying those organizations and we are accompanying those individuals to try to address the problem of hunger in new ways.”

Showing Up

Food deserts, hunger and poverty are not natural things. People’s access to food is shaped by political, economic, social and environmental factors.

“The fact that there is no access to fresh produce in West Virginia seems like an intractable almost like, ‘oh well, that’s too bad that exists,’ but if you look around the world and even here in West Virginia, communities are working tirelessly to try and address these problems, and they don’t always get the attention they deserve,” Wilson said.

“A lot of what the lab does is try to harness and connect with people, and then use what is at our disposal to help elevate and support the development of strategies and to support people for food system change.” Bradley Wilson

By combining innovation with research, the Food Justice Lab is building cooperative networks and organizations that have the capacity to give communities the support and tools they need to begin addressing systemic inequities in the food system.

As the media relations coordinator, Simmons has been tasked with the challenge of communicating problems of food insecurity and poverty to the public.

“In creating content for the lab, I’ve learned that is has to be emotional, but also educational and impactful so it in itself is also sustained,” Simmons said. “It’s not just helping; there’s an entire methodology behind the practice of helping to make sure that it is sustainable and making the biggest impact.”

WVU alumna Amanda Marple (MA Geography, ‘18) and education and outreach program director, first started working in the lab during as an undergraduate.

“It’s really important to know that the lab isn’t just about food,” said Marple. “Yes, we do work on food access, food systems and disparities of food, but our work is driven by the need to address systems of oppression through the lens of food. Everyone has to eat, so, the confluence of all of our societal ills can be seen in our food system.”

Wilson notes that equity and justice are at the core of the Food Justice Lab. In the future he hopes that people will begin to think critically about who is producing their food, who is receiving it and whether or not that process is equitable.

“If we want to build a different kind of food system, then we need social justice, diversity and inclusion in any collaboration and in any discussion about how we’re going to do that,” Wilson said. “We need more and more people to be aware that a fundamental element of creating food system change is having diverse collectivities of people coming out to solve problems.”

Rebuilding the structure of our current food system goes further than merely connecting local people to agricultural production within their communities. Wilson argues that it begins with coming to terms with how pernicious discrimination is in our society.

“I can talk about hunger, I can talk about how we need to change our communities to improve our access to food and I can talk about how to develop a company that connects growers of produce to buyers,” Wilson said. “But what I really want to talk about is how we need to be better people and to be better at thinking through the things at the core of our society that are undermining our ability to come together and solve these problems.”