Local community, USDA begin growing McDowell Co. local food indu - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

Local community, USDA begin growing McDowell Co. local food industry

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WELCH, W. Va (WVVA)-- Representatives from the United States Department of Agriculture stopped in the Two Virginias to get people thinking about how to make their communities healthier.

In a McDowell County roundtable held in Welch, the USDA officials heard from community leaders to better understand the challenges people there face. They wanted to find out how to help with the issues McDowell Co. residents believe hold their communities back.

In the open forum, some said they believe health is a major concern in the county. A number of people told the USDA they would like to see a farmer's market open, along with more options for affordable locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

They also expressed concern about a lack of housing for teachers and other professionals to move to (and stay in) McDowell County.

USDA senior advisor Max Finberg told WVVA that getting those things in place would be a big step in the direction of growth for McDowell County, and they offer grants and other resources to help. Finberg said part of their visit was also about educating people on what his agency can do.

"A lot of our role here is in education, in connecting the dots," he said. "What are the tools in our toolbox to fix the challenges and problems that are here? That's why i'm spending the day in McDowell County."

The round table also discussed continuing to grow tourism in the area. Finberg said that industry is now the biggest in the state of West Virginia, so developing it locally as well as providing locally-grown food can be two helpful keys to growth.

To foster that, Finberg and other USDA reps on-site recommend beginning community gardens and asking established local farmers to begin accepting nutrition assistance, like food stamps, SNAP benefits, and WIC coupons.

Sylvester Edwards, who runs the new Creekside Farms in Kimball, McDowell County, wants to do just that.

He works at least 8 hours a day in a re-purposed lot in town. There, he grows herbs and produce, from thyme to beets, peas, squash, and beans. It's all grown by hand and organically, and Edwards hopes this is a powerful tool to bring healthier food to the people who don't get enough.

"Setting up this whole farm is to grow food. But to get it in the right hands I have to be able to accept food stamps," he said. "Those are the people I want to reach. I want to change the eating habits, [and] I want to go to healthier food standards."

Edwards says plans are in the works to begin selling to local schools for student lunches, as well as start a farmer's market in Kimball next week.

USDA officials say farming is an untapped industry in McDowell County because of the nutrient-rich soil there.

This stop in Welch was part of a regional tour for USDA officials, who travel on to the Shenandoah Valley from West Virginia.
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