On the EDGE of Food System Transformation in West Virginia


When Jason Tartt moved back to where he was born and raised—McDowell County, West Virginia—he did not intend to become a farmer. But he has always been a problem solver, and he recognized that McDowell County and many others in this region of Appalachia had serious problems with hunger and food security.

He felt he had little choice but to set about transforming the food system. Readers may recognize improving food systems as a focus of Bread’s work to end hunger in longer-term, sustainable ways.

McDowell County is one of the most impoverished counties in the United States. It is a “persistent poverty county,” usually defined by the U.S. government as a county whose poverty rate has routinely topped 20 percent for the past 30 years. Many county residents are food insecure. One reason is that it is a classic example of a rural food desert. There are just three grocery stores within the county’s 535 square miles.

Tartt realized that growing food is a natural solution to the problem. He also realized right away that as just one person—a person new to farming, no less—he would have limited impact on chronic food insecurity. He knew he needed to team up with others interested in the idea.  

Amelia Bandy also grew up in Appalachia, seeing her community decline as there were fewer and fewer jobs in the coal industry.  She considered moving away, but she did not want to leave her family, who have lived here for generations. She works with people who are struggling with addiction, many of them former coal industry workers.

West Virginia is among the states hardest hit by the U.S. opioid epidemic, which has touched Bandy’s family along with many others.

In 2015, Tartt and Bandy founded a social enterprise they named Economic Development Greater East (EDGE). The goal is to generate a new source of economic growth based on the region’s agricultural assets. West Virginia has mountainous terrain and is known for precisely

one industry (in myth if not in reality): coal mining.

According to Tartt, Bandy, and their colleagues at EDGE, West Virginia is not known as a food producer simply because no one has tried farming here.

Tartt describes Bandy as the gears that make EDGE run, and she describes him as the visionary who inspires people to take notice. After he was featured in the episode “Black in Appalachia” of the CNN series United Shades of America, EDGE was able to secure a grant from Together for Hope, a rural development organization founded by long-time Bread supporter the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Together for Hope has funding partners in more than 50 persistent-poverty counties across the country.

EDGE now has a grant from the federal government as well, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture program Value Added Producer Grants, which supports the development of local food systems. In this case, the “value added” is processing the crops EDGE grows into additional food products. These can be sold at higher prices than the raw commodities that are their main ingredients.

Added value also comes in the form of jobs created in processing, marketing, and retailing the products.  

One example is Appalachian Gold, a product line of bottled sauces that Tartt recently launched. The first sauce on the market is Mama’s Meat Sauce, adapted from his mother’s own recipe and made with local ingredients.

These ventures are leading EDGE to opportunities to further increase its impact. Working with the local affiliate of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Tartt gathered data to explain to potential investors how the area’s natural agricultural resources can form the basis for successful agricultural production.

A coal company that owns large areas of abandoned mines was persuaded: it leased 335 acres to EDGE for a demonstration project.

This is a lot more land than EDGE has previously had. Tartt hopes the demonstration project can give the local food system the initial boost it needs to grow and change. He also hopes other struggling communities can gain information and encouragement to try for themselves the idea of economic growth based on transforming food systems.

Todd Post is senior domestic policy advisor with Bread for the World.

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