Free Event Explores Local Gardens, ‘Growing Food, Health, Hope’

By LINDA COMINS

Staff Writer

Examples of how area residents are “growing food, health and hope” form the focus for this year’s food day at St. Joseph Retreat Center in Wheeling.

The free public program will be presented at Mount St. Joseph from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 11. Lunch will be served.

Ken Peralta, executive director of Grow Ohio Valley, will be the keynote speaker. His topic will be “Growing Healthy Futures Through Local Food.”

The day-long event, launched in 2015, offers area residents an opportunity to share information and learn about initiatives created to address food issues in the region. Retreat center staff and volunteers organize the program in concert with Grow Ohio Valley.

Registration is required and is limited to 100 participants. The deadline for registration is Wednesday. To register, call 304-232-8160, ext. 112, or send an email message to saint josephretreatcenter137@ gmail.com.

Free-will donations are accepted. The proceeds will be given to the FARMacy, a collaborative program between Wheeling Health Right and Grow Ohio Valley in which health care providers write “prescriptions” for local grown produce for clients who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

Sister Kathleen Durkin, CSJ, an associate staff member at the retreat center, said, “We’re very excited about the focus for the day. Presenters and exhibitors will highlight the impact that the local food movement and the expansion of access to healthy food is making in our community neighborhoods, churches, schools and among vulnerable populations.”

Presenters and exhibitors hail from Grow Ohio Valley, Catholic Charities, Try This West Virginia, Ohio County and Marshall County school systems, Health Right’s FARMacy, Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia Northern Community College’s culinary arts program, West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab and community gardens.

Anna Marie Troiani, executive director of St. Joseph Retreat Center, commented, “Our two previous days created wonderful energy among participants and opened opportunities for collaborations across the community. This year, we’ll hear and see more about those collaborations.”

Making new connections and sharing ideas are central to the day’s focus. Troiani said the event allows participants “to network with people who might need a helping hand, and for us to learn what other people are doing.”

A highlight of the morning session will be Peralta’s address. Participants also will have an opportunity to view displays, see demonstrations and gather resource material. After lunch, two series of break-out sessions will be held. Each session will feature a choice of three presentations.

During the first break-out series, representatives of Try This West Virginia will explain the organization’s mini-grant program; community gardeners will discuss the effects of urban gardening and speakers will address the topic of “Cultivating Soil and Soul.”

Brother John Byrd and Ginger Kabala of the South Wheeling Preservation Alliance will provide an update on the community garden in their neighborhood. Karen Cox from the WVU extension service will give a demonstration on soil in Mount St. Joseph’s garden; guests are advised to bring appropriate clothing for this outdoor activity. Mike Woods will relate the connection between body, mind and soul. Beekeeper Steve Roth will explain the role of pollinators.

Acting U.S. Attorney Betsy Jividen will provide information about a successful collaboration between the drug court system and Grow Ohio Valley. Kate Marshall, program leader for Grow Ohio Valley, said drug court enrollees helped to build greenhouses, worked in the greenhouses and worked in fields to plant and harvest.

“We became such a part of these individuals’ lives,” Marshall said. “We’ve been really excited to be part of it.”

Danny Swan, co-founder of Grow Ohio Valley, will discuss how gardening projects with seniors and other groups can create a sense of community, heal lives and bring people together.

The second break-out series will consider “Food Justice: What Is It? Changing Minds and Hearts,” “Growing Food, Health and Hope in the Schools’ Community” and “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Spirits: From Faith to Fork.”

Joshua Lohnes and Amanda Marple from the Food Justice Lab at WVU will discuss food justice issues that are being identified and addressed in the state. Marshall will talk about food justice immersion trips organized in Wheeling for visiting university students.

Mary Lou Kent will talk about a gleaning program, now in its fourth year, at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Wheeling. Inspired by a biblical passage (Leviticus 23:22) about leaving part of the harvest for the needy and aliens, Kent encourages members to donate excess produce from their gardens or to plant an extra row of vegetables to give to people in need.

Kent said parishioners can put their extra fresh produce in bushel baskets placed in the church’s vestibule after Sunday Mass. She takes the produce to Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center in Wheeling where the vegetables are given to clients as part of food orders. Any leftover produce is used by the center’s cook for daily meals. “I think it’s been good for the parish,” Kent commented.

Representatives of Try This West Virginia will discuss a “Healthy Bodies, Healthy Spirits” initiative that is geared to faith-based groups.

Durkin said a number of local groups have received mini-grants from Try This West Virginia. Three grant-funded projects will be discussed during the program. Mary Railing of Wheeling Jesuit will talk about the “living wall,” a soil-less growing system created at Catholic Charities Neighborhood Center. Amanda Cummins, a physician assistant at Wheeling Health Right, and Dr. Carol Greco will describe the FARMacy initiative. Chef Gene Evans from Northern’s culinary arts program and Marshall will share information about the “Dinner in a SNAP” program at the college.

Marshall said families enrolled in “Dinner in a SNAP” are taught basic kitchen skills and learn to prepare healthy meals with local fresh produce. Each family receives a free slow cooker and ingredients for meals made in the classes.

At each weekly session, they prepare three meals to take home.