Ashton Marra Published

Food & Farm Coalition Identifying Food Policy Priorities for 2016 Session


Members of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition hosted their second annual food policy forum in Summersville Tuesday. The grassroots group is working to expand access to locally grown foods in the state while also improving the business climate for small farmers. While the discussions were preliminary, the group is beginning to identify its Legislative agenda for the 2016 session.


“We never know from day one to the sixtieth day what it’s going to be,” Senator Ron Miller warned the group as they began identifying their issues. He urged them to be flexible as they work with lawmakers through the legislative process.


A Democrat from GreenbrierCounty, the senator served for years as the chair of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, but now that the chamber is under Republican control, Miller no holds the position. Still, he said agricultural policies aren’t as politically divisive as many of the other issues in the statehouse.


“Where it becomes political is if we emphasize agricultural issues,” he said. “A lot of time people in leadership don’t believe it’s important in West Virginia and it’s extremely important.”


Important, Miller said, because it can provide the economic diversification some regions of the state are desperate for.


“As a lot of our more historic industries have started declining, we can see food and farm businesses start as a small niche of economic development, West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition Program Director Megan Smith said.


So, Smith and the coalition are working on a grassroots level to aid those niche industries and zero in on policy changes that will help them thrive in West Virginia communities. The coalition’s gathering in Summerville was the first step in their annual process of choosing policy initiatives to back and turning them into actual pieces of legislation they can present at the statehouse.


Tuesday’s day long session included a workshop led by Ona Balkus with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic. The clinic works with state-level groups across the country to increase access to healthy foods, prevent diet-related diseases and create new market opportunities for small farmers. They both research and write policy while promoting effective ways to share those messages with lawmakers, like community organizing.


“Because especially I think on the state and local level, if you have an organized coalition pushing for something, you can get a lot done,” Balkus said after the workshop.  “Legislators are listening. They’re not deaf to those kinds of efforts.”


The Food and Farm Coalition has seen recent success, getting lawmakers’ approval during the 2015 session for a bill that set up a better business structure for agricultural and recycling co-ops.


Still, Miller said the politics—and the money—will play a part in the agricultural issues the coalition tries to push during the 2016 session.  For the sake of the coalfields, he said, he hopes agriculture doesn’t get overshadowed.


 “We sometimes look for the power or the money in the state. Right now it’s gas, it was coal. Those still are two powerful areas,” Miller said, but agriculture is part of our state seal. It’s part of our history, but it’s also a part of our future and that’s what you have to do, you have to continue to emphasize the part that it can play in revitalizing southern West Virginia.”


The coalition plans to identify its top legislative priorities by the end of the summer, turn them into legislation and start shopping those bills to lawmakers for their support by interim meetings in September.


So far, possible initiatives include funding for mobile markets to increase access to fresh foods and legislation that would allow the sale of cottage foods, or foods like jams and baked goods produced in people’s homes.