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Increasing Our Food Security in West Virginia

As the days get colder and shorter, many Americans will experience what we call “seasonal depression.” Lack of vitamin C, personal interactions and social events are the root for many that experience this illness. It can cause folks to lose interest in activities, feel tired or even gain weight from overeating.

Add the anxiety many of our citizens have felt due to the pandemic and a toxic political environment, you have a recipe for widespread emotional despair this winter. Now more than ever, state and community leaders need to look after our citizenry to ensure peak mental and physical health.

How to accomplish peak wellness starts with maintaining a steady flow of local, fresh, healthy options into our food systems.

For a place like West Virginia, that is a tall task, given our temperatures will reach near sub-zero by mid-winter. But, with the use of technology, as well as traditional farming, there are avenues to preserve what we produce locally for most of the year. High tunnels, for example, can expand the growing season allowing many of our farmers to grow almost year-round. With an abundance of natural gas, heating structures such as high tunnels or greenhouses should be easily accomplished. If countries such as Canada can ship tomatoes to West Virginia in the dead of winter, there is no reason we cannot grow those tomatoes ourselves.

A traditional method that can extend our access to local produce is the art of canning. Many West Virginians do this every year or have grown up with relatives that have kept this tradition alive. With more young people looking towards a “homesteading lifestyle,” we should be passing these techniques on to a new generation. Even if you have a small garden in your backyard, canning can provide access to squash, cucumbers or even peppers throughout the winter.

Luckily, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture has been advocating for our own homesteading series that connects experts to the novice farmers since the beginning of the pandemic. Combine the series with the resources West Virginia University and the West Virginia State Extension Service provide, you have a recipe for success.

Relaxing meat processing laws and expanding the authority of state-inspected facilities is another way to help the average West Virginian. As we saw in the pandemic, many national, corporate processors had to shut down due to outbreaks. That led customers to make use of butcher or slaughter facilities in their own local areas.

Just in the last year, local operations have seen business double nearing capacity for many of these facilities. As demand continues to rise, we need to ensure laws and regulations allow folks to share in livestock, as well as provide opportunities for local slaughter facilities to expand. Not only will this increase access to much needed protein, but also decrease the chance of food-borne outbreaks.

This year has been taxing on our citizens — who have felt increased uncertainties, as well as pain from loved ones lost. As we head into the colder months, we must do more to help one another survive this horrible pandemic.

At the state level, we must continue to ensure our citizens have access to quality food. I know we are on the right track as gardening, meat processing and consumer demand for local agriculture have all increased — but we must take agriculture seriously by investing resources into our existing businesses. If state and community leaders in West Virginia truly care about the well-being of the people they represent, food security should be at the top of all our priority lists.

It is time to expand our local food systems in the Mountain State.

Leonhardt, now state commissioner of agriculture, formerly served as state senator representing Senate District 2. Prior to becoming commissioner, he and his wife Shirley raised cattle, sheep and goats on a 380-acre farm near Fairview in Monongalia County.

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