Some food for thought
Food is the nation’s largest employer. In fact, 23 million people across the U.S. are employed by the food sectors whether it be farming, food processing, distribution or markets and support. Surprisingly, despite the large number of people employed by the food industry, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population farms. But we all have to eat! Food impacts our health as well as our economy. Unfortunately, for too long, the economic association with food has not been a priority for state leaders.
Here in West Virginia, 1.8 million people need to eat every day, and yet state leaders don’t openly discuss agriculture opportunities enough. They often take safe, affordable and nutritious food for granted. They just don’t seem to understand food creates jobs.
Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt often talks about the fact our state eats $8 billion of food annually, yet we are only directly involved with less than $1 billion of the production, processing and distribution of that food. Our communities will not improve without jobs and our residents will not grow strong and healthy without better nutrition. Food based jobs are a no-brainer to feed not just ourselves but others across the country. We can leverage our state’s central location along the eastern seaboard to attract new farms and food-based businesses and encourage existing farms to expand.
State leaders need to stop awarding institutional food contracts for schools, prisons and hospitals to out-of-state businesses. We need to create those types of facilities here at home. That would keep hard-earned tax dollars in-state. We might not produce all the food necessary here in West Virginia to complete this vision, but we could certainly partner with other states in a much more balanced food exchange.
We also need to change how West Virginians eat. Many people try to sustain themselves on sugar and salt laden food with inactive lifestyles. At the end of the day, that leads to health problems and our state becomes less attractive to future businesses and lowers workforce participation rates. We need to find ways to make fruits and vegetables more attractive than fast-food. That will take research, education and buy-in from state residents.
West Virginia’s K-12, career/vocational centers and post-secondary institutions must also align educational models and encourage future generations to consider farming, food research and distribution as viable careers.
Leonhardt does understand these opportunities. However, he needs more support, cooperation, commitment and funding.
I urge you to call state leaders such as Gov. Jim Justice, West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Ed Gaunch, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw, as well as WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert. These leaders and others must work closely with Leonhardt to prioritize a food plan for our state, one that creates a burgeoning agriculture industry and employs West Virginians.
These things won’t happen overnight. But if we can get leaders from all corners of West Virginia to buy-in, we can accomplish these goals.