Grant helps expand healthy food access, boost agriculture in West Virginia

Access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods and research-based nutrition education in rural communities is a challenge. A grant provided by the Walmart Foundation will allow the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition to help address that issue and take on the state’s food insecurity problem from several angles.

MORGANTOWN — Limited access to fresh, healthy foods in rural West Virginia not only limits families' dining choices, it results in poor health outcomes.

One in four of the state’s rural residents faces food insecurity and with the recent public health crisis, it is anticipated that more West Virginians will not have reliable access to food. Food insecurity directly affects the state’s health as 40 percent of West Virginians are obese, 16 percent have diabetes and 13 percent have cardiovascular disease.

But now, a $658,000 Walmart Foundation grant to the West Virginia University Extension Service Family Nutrition Program will help West Virginians improve their health by increasing access to fresh, healthy, locally grown foods and research-based nutrition education.

A new program called “Appetite for a Healthier Future” will focus on 10 West Virginia counties — Barbour, Boone, Cabell, Greenbrier, Lincoln, McDowell, Mercer, Mingo, Roane and Upshur — and will take on the state’s food insecurity problem from several angles.

Students at low-income schools will have access to locally-grown fruits and vegetables through West Virginia Kids’ Markets. Patients living with chronic diseases and food insecurity will receive free, fresh foods through FARMacy programs at their doctors’ offices.

Recipients of SNAP — what used to be called Food Stamps — will see a two- or three-fold increase in their buying power at farmers’ markets through the SNAP Stretch program. Two food pantries in each of the targeted counties will receive cold storage capability to increase the amount of fresh, healthy foods they distribute as part of a new Farm-to-Food Pantry program.

“Access to healthy food builds the foundation for good health in communities,” says Eileen Hyde, director, Sustainable Food Systems and Food Access for Walmart.org. “Our goal is to improve people’s ability to more consistently consume nutritious food. That involves connecting people to the food they need as well as building confidence in their choices. We’re excited to support and learn from the West Virginia University Extension Service’s innovative program that will help West Virginians improve their health.”

Alongside these grant programs, the Family Nutrition Program will provide evidence-based nutrition education and obesity prevention programming through its 45 nutrition educators across the state, who reach 20,000 youths and 1,200 adults each year.

“Kids Markets, SNAP Stretch and the FARMacy program have already proven successful as pilot projects,” said Gina Wood, FNP specialist and West Virginia Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program program coordinator. “We have seen how they can improve people’s health. Now, thanks to the Walmart Foundation, we can bring these tried-and-true programs to more West Virginians than ever before.”

FNP will rely on several partners to help implement the grant programs.

To provide a first-hand account of food-related lived experiences, Lauri Andress, assistant professor, WVU School of Public Health, will use community-based participatory methods to collect photo and audio narratives from health practitioners, food pantry staff and families in the 10-county region.

The WVU Office of Health Services Research at the WVU School of Public Health, will work with clinics to set up FARMacy programs and help evaluate patient health outcomes. Additionally, the WVU Food Justice Lab, part of the newly created Center for Resilient Communities in Eberly College’s Department of Geology and Geography, will provide technical support to project partners and stakeholders while also working with FNP to collect feedback from participating partners on the grant programs.

The West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition will coordinate the SNAP Stretch program and provide card readers to farmers markets that don’t yet have them. Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective will connect Kids Markets and FARMacy programs with produce from local farmers. Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Foodbank will partner with FNP to identify food pantries that need cold storage capability.

The grant was made through the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit organization that receives and administers private donations on behalf of the university.

WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program’s work is supported by the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.

Walmart.org is helping people live better by supporting programs that work to accelerate upward job mobility for frontline workers, address hunger and make healthier, more sustainably-grown food a reality, and build strong communities where Walmart operates.

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