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WVU spearheading regional USDA project to increase agricultural production

Rural land in West Virginia, some parts cut with a tractor and other parts covered in trees.

The WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health is leading a USDA-funded project designed to increase land access to food producers. (WVU Photo)

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West Virginia University is leading one of 50 projects as part of a nationwide effort to increase farmland availability to underserved populations, while also helping producers obtain working capital and means of food distribution.

The WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health was awarded a five-year, $8.5 million cooperative agreement grant for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Increasing Land Access Program, funded by President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Titled “Working Lands of Central Appalachia,” the WVU project covers West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. Pairing with 11 state, regional and national organizations, the group will address agricultural workforce training, farm-to-institution markets and food as medicine. Their work will focus on assisting underserved veterans, people with limited resources, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

“By engaging state institutions to assess demands for local food procurement and community benefit programs, this project supports healthier food systems in the community to address social determinants of health,” said Megan Govindan, ICRH research associate, who leads the regional effort.

Opening farmlands and job opportunities
“The goal of increasing land access is to be able to support our agricultural future by utilizing existing markets and finding sources of capital, whether that be policy focused or otherwise,” Govindan explained.

To increase the availability of farmlands, Govindan and her team will conduct audits of public and private holdings. 

Existing public farmlands include those owned by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and institutions such as WVU and community hospitals. Input from landowners will help determine how to increase access and production at these sites.

Private farmlands include heirs’ property, acreage which was passed down without a will or clear deed. The descendants may have the right to use the land and may have difficulties in obtaining federal benefits. As private lands become available to those interested in farming or increasing efficiencies, Govindan expects to see matchmaking opportunities for agricultural careers and training.

“West Virginia leads the nation in small, family-owned farms,” she said. “Supporting agricultural communities is critical to increasing food access.”  

Creating farm-to-institution pathways
Project partners plan to build on the support of government policies that require certain institutions to include fresh food in their meal plans and another that mandates nonprofit hospitals complete community health needs assessments. Using that data, they will create an anchor collaborative to manage local food procurement and community benefit provisions. 

“As we’re engaging those hospitals through community benefit, it opens the opportunity for all nonprofits to be able to engage and accelerate their institutional investment,” Govindan said. “We’ll have a standardized language of what those activities are so they can be invested in a uniform way and then replicated and scaled across the region.”

Other organization partners will offer training to farmers on how to begin selling or increase product offerings to institutions and in community markets.

Providing food as medicine for healthier communities
To make fresh food more accessible in communities, the group will oversee a needs assessment and develop a curriculum that will integrate agriculture and health.

“With this curriculum we’re not only talking about the opportunities within agriculture, but how to be able to make our communities more food secure,” Govindan said.

The project leverages ICRH resources, including WVU student organizations Project REACH — Rural Education Alliance for Community Health — and Rural Health Interest Group to support the cultivation of healthier rural communities.

Govindan explained students filling various roles in the project will gain cultural competency and an understanding of barriers rural communities face.

“Many patients live in food deserts and may be food insecure,” she said. “This project provides health science students with food as medicine experiences that will improve their ability to practice in rural areas, while addressing social determinants of health and engaging national, regional and state partners.”

Govindan added the project also supports recruitment and retention of health care practitioners by addressing other systems that impact population health.

The project incorporates its network of resources to accomplish the goals of each of the focus areas. Some examples of how their work will intertwine include the Virginia State University Small Farm Extension Service assessing needs in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and the West Virginia coalfields, and the Pennsylvania Center for Dairy Excellence training West Virginia dairy farmers on ways to increase their production.

“As we’re building those pathways, we’ll also be engaging a number of West Virginia organizations that will help coordinate training activities to get the support we need for land, capital and market access,” Govindan said. 



MEDIA CONTACT: Linda Skidmore
Health Research Writer
WVU Research Communications

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