6 Questions for Maria Arnot on Coalfield Food Security

Tell us a little about how you got into this work, and since then, what keeps you going?

I moved to West Virginia directly after graduating college to fulfill an AmeriCorps VISTA position in Mingo County, WV. I graduated college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications (journalism), and was not sure what I wanted to do. I moved to West Virginia without knowing  a single thing about West Virginia, let alone Mingo County.

I did not plan on staying for more than a year, and I have now been here for nearly six. The work that our organization (the Williamson Health and Wellness Center) does is truly rewarding . We are located in the southern coalfields where there is high rates of unemployment as well as high rates of diabetes and obesity. I have helped to spearhead a number of community healthy eating events, and through our mobile markets, voucher programs for low-income families and work with the SNAP community, I feel like our work is having an impact on people’s lives.


What's the vision for your work? If you're successful, what change would have occurred?

My vision is to have a sustainable local food system. To get to the point where local farmers are producing food for our local markets and restaurants, and community members are making the choice to come to the market to purchase these healthier, local options.


What would you say is the single biggest food systems issue or challenge you're facing? How are you meeting that challenge?

We have two large challenges. One is a lack of farmland / growers. Most of the producers we work with are aging and are not able to meet the demand of local produce. Right now we have a mobile market (40 stops) a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture Project with 25-30 shares.) and Farmers Market.

Another challenge is lack of resources. Our community has high rates of unemployment, so often times folks cannot afford events such as Farm To Table Dinners, or feel like they cannot afford “fresh, local produce” from our farmers market. It is trying to demonstrate to people the value in cooking  healthy, delicious and affordable meals from home, that is the challenge.

We have been having monthly cooking classes to try and combat this issue. We are hosting them at churches, community centers, senior centers etc. These classes show participants they can afford to make a healthy, delicious meal using local products.

We are working with the local high school to identify new growers, and are trying to support our existing farmers as best we can, to ensure that they have the resources they need to succeed.


Who is helping you? What kind of help do you need to realize your vision? 

Currently, we have about 10 individuals on our outreach staff at the clinic that work on healthy eating, active living, health education and community engagement projects. Personally, I have one AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and a full time farmers market manager. This is the first year that we have had three full time people working on local food projects; In order to realize our vision, we need both community and regional support. Having technical assistance support from universities is something we are currently looking for, and we are always seeking additional funding.

Recently West Virginia was in the spotlight for the teacher's strike, which highlighted child food insecurity. How did the school closings impact your work? Did it reveal anything new? Change anything?

While the teachers strike did not necessarily impact our work directly, we have been making more of a concerted effort to reach school children. Kristin DeBoard, the AmeriCorps VISTA, goes every  month to the schools to lead a brief nutrition lesson and engage the students in an activity.


Have you observed any differences in food access or your healthy food programs that you can attribute to race, class, or gender?

Personally, I haven't noticed any differences in food access based on race or gender, however we do live in a very white community.  As far a class, I do think that being low-income limits your access to fresh produce. We are located in a food desert and only have one grocery store in the county. Many people do not have reliable access to transportation. This was one of the reasons we started the mobile market. Getting our SNAP sales up at the market is one of our large goals for this year.

The older generations seem to have been very involved in gardening, cooking and canning-- but these arts seem to have been lost among my generation and younger (and probably a generation about me). We just did a cooking course at a local senior center and most of those folks spoke about having gardens and about their experience canning. Middle aged individuals reminisce about their parents canning. Another thing that I have found is that those that do have gardens tend to give away their product to their neighbors, and selling it is a very foreign concept (that they are not necessarily interested in).