A Food Desert

According to federal statistics, West Virginia produces less than 10 percent of the food its residents consume – and more than half of what is produced here comes from the poultry industry.

“We simply don’t grow it here,” said West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick.

In fact, we grow so little here that the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls some of the more isolated, rural regions of the state “food deserts.” When Catholic Charities of West Virginia called for volunteers to help serve these food deserts, it chose to focus on a six-county area east of Wood County. The aim of that program is to provide healthy food and other services to the rural poor.

There was a time in this state when the rural poor were the very folks with the freshest, healthiest produce out of their own gardens. A couple of weekends hunting might have provided meat for the rest of the season. On a larger scale, the 800,000 sheep that used to graze in West Virginia have dwindled to fewer than 30,000. Beef cattle at one time numbered 700,000. Now there are about half as many.

Helmick said last week his department is dealing with companies who might want to bring processing facilities and feed lots to West Virginia. He also said initiatives are being put in place to help farmers grow and process their food in-state.

His explanation, however, that “If we can do it, it will work,” begs for more detailed discussion.

Vague plans and possibilities are not enough, if West Virginia is to see the “$6 billion worth of opportunity” Helmick says exists. Neither is tackling with charity the cultural shift toward dependence and entitlement that has turned our rural counties into food deserts.

One specific mentioned by Helmick was the idea of using land cleared by mountaintop removal mining to plant crops such as potatoes. That might be a good start, though it would be helpful to hear which companies are on board for such a venture.

Phrases such as “work is being done,” “we can,” “we want,” and “we need to,” combined with words like “potential” are lovely sentiments. If Helmick is serious about addressing the problems that have kept West Virginia from realizing that potential, his actions had better speak louder than his words.