WHEELING - In flourishing gardens and farms tucked away in secret corners of Wheeling are people who believe the future of the city and the health of its citizens have a lot to do with getting one's hands dirty in a vegetable patch.
This growing group of farmers, gardeners and interested parties call themselves the Green Wheeling Initiative, and they envision a food culture in Wheeling in which area residents will be more likely to pick dinner from their backyard than from the freezer of a grocery store.
"In a very positive way, we are trying to provide an alternative food system that creates a healthy environment for Wheeling," Terry Sheldon, one founder of GWI, said. "We're convinced through local partnership that we can create a local food economy around the issue of foods that are grown by and consumed by people in the Wheeling area."
Photo by Sarah Harmon
Kevin, left, and Connie Hoge oversee Alive Gardens, a community garden located on Jacob Street in South Wheeling. Alive Gardens is part of the Green Wheeling Initiative that has funded 11 micro-grants in the past year to community members interested in starting a garden.
The Green Wheeling Initiative was created with the idea that the food choices Wheeling residents make directly affect not only the local economy, but their personal health and well-being. Robert Martin, a member of the GWI and local organic farmer, cited West Virginia's battle with obesity and other health issues as one of the group's main concerns.
"The scope and complexity of problems like childhood obesity and many other public health issues are directly related to food," Martin said. "In the current system, the main access is to fast food, processed foods that are high in artificial preservatives and sugars. It comes to redirecting our concept of food to a nutrient-dense diet, which is balanced with vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts."
The goal of the Green Wheeling Initiative is to create a local food model where 10 percent of the food the city consumes is grown locally.
"Local food is a commitment not only to our community and our local economy, but also the environment," Martin said. "Oftentimes, local food is picked at its peak of ripeness or just a few days before it is taken to market. Store produce will be picked months in advance and be shipped thousands of miles. That system is not feasible to sustain. There's energy with refrigeration of this food. The carbon footprint of your food means the distance it's traveled and the amount of energy it's taken to get to that point."
According to Martin, increasing the amount and availability of local foods will not just benefit the health of local resident, but also the health of the area's economy.
"It's economically viable for our community and for our future," Martin said. "Being able to rejuvenate some of these empty lots with abundant gardens - there's really a lot of potential everywhere you look in Wheeling."
Evidence of Green Wheeling Initiative's growth is scattered all around the community. Current garden and farm sites include the East Wheeling Community Gardens on 14th, 15th and 18th streets, South Wheeling Alive Gardens, the King's Daughters Child Care Garden, the Culinary Arts Garden at West Virginia Community College, Woodsdale Elementary School Garden, McNinch Elementary School Garden in Moundsville and Bill's Garden of Eden on Wheeling Island. In the past year, GWI has generated 20 garden projects and nine free educational workshops in Ohio and Marshall counties.
The Green Wheeling Initiative has received grants from the Hess Family Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation that have allowed the GWI to give 11 micro-grants in the past year to community members interested in starting gardens. Additionally, through a $55,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation, GWI has created a study on how local residents are spending their food dollars that will aid in creating a three-year business model to shift the food economy to 10 percent local foods being consumed.
Sheldon, who owns the Small Farm Training Center near Cameron, said the local food movement unifies the community and generates a sense of collaboration.
"It makes the tagline of 'The Friendly City' very real. Farming is not solemn work that you do all by yourself just to feed your family. The joy of farming, the joy of gardening is when it's done as a cooperative effort," Sheldon said. "We're trying to create a culture in which people want to work together."
However, community gardens and farms are not the only way area residents can contribute to the local food movement. According to Martin, families can plant vegetables and herbs that flourish in the Ohio Valley's climate in their own backyards. He suggested leafy greens such as lettuce, kale and swiss chard, green beans, tomatoes and herbs as easy and productive foods to grow.
"People are very satisfied being able to be self-sufficient - that concept really appeals to the individual. It really is just being able to have a little bit of space, a little bit of water. The abundance that's provided in the process of cultivating the earth is a worthwhile endeavor," Martin said. "It will empower people to make the right choice for caring for themselves.
"There's a certain integrity in caring for your community and caring for the earth," he added. "It starts with food and carries over into all aspects of life."