Ten Days Learning About Food Justice in West Virginia
by Annie Chester
I had just polished off a fried green tomato as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. Sitting in the twilight, I could make out the shadows of nineteen other smiling faces. These faces included thirteen other Appalachian Food Justice Fellows, our three fearless leaders, faculty from West Virginia University (WVU), and our hosts Amy and Mike.
Amy Dawson and Mike Costello are chefs, farmers, and storytellers living on a beautiful hilltop in Lost Creek, West Virginia, a 45 minute drive from Morgantown and WVU. Their home, which doubles as a farm, is aptly named Lost Creek Farm. There they grow a variety of heirloom and regional crops from apples to corn and beans. Cows, rabbits, and chickens also call the farm home. Using the products from the farm, Amy and Mike travel across the east coast as Lost Creek Farm Traveling Kitchen sharing the food, cultural heritage, and history of their home state. Mike, a trained journalist, shares this work as an editor at 100 Days in Appalachia.
Lost Creek Farm is just one example of the many amazing projects I learned about during the ten-day intensive Appalachian Food Justice Fellowship. The fellowship, which was organized by the Food Justice Lab (FJL) at WVU, integrated firsthand encounters with lectures and readings from current scholarship. I loved this approach because it balanced different and valuable types of education to deliver the wider message that our inequitable food systems need fixed.
Hours before dinner at Lost Creek Farm, Dr. Jonathan Hall, a professor at WVU, joined Mike to teach us about foraging. The pair directed us on a hike around the farm where we encountered wild ginger, ramps, and pawpaw trees, among other Appalachian treasures. We had met Dr. Hall the day before in Morgantown where he had facilitated a discussion on the origins of humanity.
Agriculture as we know it now–farming on a mass scale for profit, not just nourishment–is a very recent practice. The shift from hunter-gatherer and environmentally-integrated agriculture methods of feeding oneself ended as colonialism, social hierarchy, surplus, war, and industrialization developed. Before these events, procuring food was a daily activity with no monetary cost or benefit attached to it. Ultimately, the powers of colonialism, etcetera dominated and led to our current wage-labor relation to food. Now we are tied to a capitalist system of food procurement that thrives thanks to white supremacy, structural racism, classicism, and more generally inequality.
Dr. Hall’s lecture was extremely powerful, as were the articles we read prior to his lecture: Hunting While Black and Notes From An Angry Black Hunter. Both articles explore how white supremacy creates structural violence, endangering people of color. White supremacy is evidenced by who owns public land (mainly white people) and who can access land or legally carry a gun without being murdered by the police (again, white people).
Learning about race and food justice is extremely important. Structural racism has created a system which makes it harder for people of color to farm and access healthy food. However, people of color have also used agriculture and food as a form of resistance. Africans forcibly enslaved were transported through the Middle Passage but hid seeds in their hair. The Black Panther Party established the Free Breakfast Program, which now the U.S. government sponsors. These examples come from Dr. Monica White the author of Freedom Farmers and Agricultural Resistance and The Black Freedom Movement, which was a required reading prior to the start of the fellowship. In the book, Dr. White showed how freedom farmers–those determined to live on the land–used agriculture as a way to gain freedom and agency while also fighting for social justice.
We were lucky enough to have a conference call with Dr. White. During the call she discussed her motivations for writing the book and answered our questions. Of all the important topics she discussed one quote stuck with me: “Be my accomplice not my ally.” She said this is a reference to white people dominating the urban agriculture movement. Because of the aforementioned structural racism in this country, black people have more barriers to accessing land and resources compared to white people. Therefore, white folk should partner with black folk and more importantly support and promote the work of their black friends.
As a white person, I found it difficult but very important to confront my whiteness during this fellowship. I think white people aren’t challenged enough to think about their privilege. I feel very grateful that people of color took the time to educate me. It is not their responsibility but it is a burden that falls upon them because white people have the ability to live in ignorance about racial injustice. In this broken food system, white folk need to recognize their privilege and take an intersectional approach to fixing the food system. Dr. White’s quote will be my motto going forward as I continue to fight for food justice.
We were still digesting our food as twilight faded into night. Bursts of light appeared behind our tents. I left my chair and walked into a field to capture the flickering lights. After some initially difficulty, I succeeded. The light turned off and on in my hand, illuminating my fingers. I could feel the light crawling along my palm. I turned around and there stood my friend, confused about what I was doing. I revealed to her the light: A firefly. She was surprised because she had never seen such a strange and beautiful insect before. We continued to catch and admire the luminescent creatures. After doing this for some time we joined our other friends in the cow pasture to admire the valley illuminated by even more fireflies. We all sat, bellies full, laughing and telling stories.
Sharing food is powerful. It brings people together. It creates community and conversation. Being able to experience the bounty of the land at Lost Creek and the goodness of West Virginia food culture is something I will carry with me the rest of my life. In a state plagued by negative stereotypes, it was refreshing to be in a space that proved that West Virginia is so much more than that. I knew this to be true before but it made me extremely happy that fellows from around the country–and world–where also exposed to this too.
While walking with one of my friends, she told me that this had been one of the most amazing experiences in her life. I immediately agreed. It was her first time in West Virginia. Our shared appreciation of the Food Justice Fellowship is a testament to not only West Virginia but to the educators and organizers at the Food Justice Lab.
The next morning the fireflies were sleeping but we were on the road to Summers County to learn about Sprouting Farms and Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective. Sprouting Farms is a nonprofit working to create new farmers through education and sharing resources. It is part of the Turnrow Collective, a nonprofit food hub that distributes the crops that local farmers produce. This helps farmers focus more on growing food, which is extremely time consuming, and leaves the logistics of marketing that food and finding buyers to Turnrow. This community-focused approach is helping local farmers get local food to locals. In short, Turnrow wants to improve community health and increase incomes for farmers by returning to Appalachian food traditions.
After an exhausting day of working in the fields and learning about Sprouting Farms and the surrounding community, we returned to our accommodations at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic community, which promotes community service and sustainable living. There we experienced the challenges of living a more environmentally-conscious lifestyle when the water ran out. Luckily, Bethlehem Farm collects rainwater and has a composting toilet meaning daily tasks, like showering and using the bathroom, were still possible albeit less comfortable.
Our time in Summers County lasted only two days but it provided us with a wealth of new knowledge. This theme continued as we arrived in Charleston to learn about Paradise Farms, an urban agriculture project run by the nonprofit KISRA. Prior to Paradise Farms, we had only experienced rural farms. Being able to learn about the unique challenges and different techniques employed by urban farms, provided a new example of what food justice can look like.
We walked through the Paradise Farms’ greenhouses and escaped the heat for a discussion in the processing and cold storage space. Through that discussion we learned more about our next stop: Cafe Appalachia. Cafe Appalachia partners with Paradise Farms to provide its customers with locally-grown, fresh produce. However, Cafe Appalachia is not a regular cafe. It “serves as a place for women in recovery with applicable job skills and experience to build a foundation for life-long sobriety.” The cafe’s mission of using food to empower the community was an especially inspiring model.
On the drive back to Morgantown after our visit at Cafe Appalachia, I had trouble focusing on my book. The delicious cup of coffee I had at the cafe was stressing my bladder but I think the bigger issue was my mind digesting the information I had consumed over the ten day fellowship. I felt so content and discontented at the same time. I felt extremely happy that I connected with so many amazing people and learned about encouraging food justice work being done. At the same time I felt angry with the broken food system and energized to fix it. This sense has stayed with me in the weeks following the fellowship and I anticipate it will continue until the food system is fixed.
Note: Ten days is not an exceptionally long time until you try to capture it in under 2,000 words. Places I left out of this story but are valuable for the food justice minded to know about are: Conscious Harvest Cooperative in Morgantown and Greenville Farm Kitchen in Greenville.
Annie Chester was a part of the first Appalachian Food Justice Fellowship cohort. She is from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and received her bachelor’s degree from Ohio University. Annie loves Appalachia and shows that love through her work at expatalachians, an Appalachian journalism project she co-founded with friends.