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Southern W.Va. town gets national nod for health initiatives

By Lydia Nuzum, Staff writer

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — This year, students at Tug Valley High School in Williamson took their knowledge and hard work to market — the Williamson farmers’ market, where they sold plants they had grown in their agriculture, greenhouse and horticulture classes during the school year.

“Today, it’s one of the most important things you can teach a kid: how incredibly easy it can be to grow your own food,” TVHS agriculture teacher Angie Fisher said. “It doesn’t matter where you live — if it’s an apartment with no yard — everywhere you live, you’re able to grow something you can eat. Leaf lettuce, onions — things that will grow in an inch of soil.”

Fisher said her curriculum reflects part of the mission of Sustainable Williamson, the grassroots organization dedicated to developing hands-on, connected approaches to revitalizing Williamson and the rest of Mingo County. 

Those initiatives, developed over the past several years, are paying off. Williamson has been chosen as one of six winners to receive the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2014 Culture of Health prize. The award, which comes with a no-strings-attached $25,000 prize, recognizes communities that have made strides to improve health outcomes for their residents. 

Jenny Hudson, director of the Mingo County Diabetes Association, said members of the Williamson community recognized the need to address the town’s own culture of health, and set out to develop a holistic approach that incorporated healthy eating, active lifestyles, economic development and community engagement. 

“The town has been actively working on this for four or five years now, and there are a few different entities working together collaboratively. I wouldn’t cite any one entity as beginning it,” Hudson said. “We work with agencies like the city development authority, the Mingo County Regional Development Authority and nonprofits, like the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, as well as around 60 churches and multiple businesses.” 

The RWJF chose Williamson and five other communities from a pool of more than 250 applicants. According to Hudson, what makes Williamson’s health initiatives unique is their scope — the town has developed running and walking groups, including Tuesday Night Track, a program that allows people of different fitness levels to compete in races for fun, plans to diversify their economy, and healthy eating initiatives, including the 3-year-old farmers’ market and plans for a local food hub.

“What we’ve found is that if you have a very diverse plan and you’re able to accomplish one part of it, it’s a cause for celebration that the community feels,” Hudson said.

One of Hudson’s favorite programs, Prescription Vegetables, partners local physicians, farmers and diabetes patients. Doctors participating in the program actually prescribe vegetables to their patients as a treatment for managing their diabetes and give them vegetable vouchers, which can be exchanged for produce at the Williamson farmers’ market. The more health goals a patient meets, the more vouchers they earn.

“We’ve been relying on word of mouth to get programs like this out there, but this year, we’re trying to get more signage into the community,” she said. 

The town has even developed a mobile market as an extension of the farmers’ market.

They haven’t stopped there, though. According to Bruce Curry, program manager for community and leadership development at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and a Sustainable Williamson collaborator, the food hub, which is in its early planning stages, would allow Williamson to partner with more growers and eventually set up a distribution hub for locally grown food.

“I hope that Williamson would, in the next couple of years, establish a community-kitchen incubator that offers economic opportunities to local entrepreneurs in the value-added food industry,” Curry said. “I’d also hope that we could create a food distribution hub to connect local farmers to a variety of markets, as well as an educational farm to help young people graduating from high school agricultural programs to make the transition to farming as a livelihood.”

Curry developed the idea during a grant-writing class offered through SWVCTC, and said he hopes to submit it for funding later this year. For Curry, the food hub has the potential to create jobs, as well as generate access to healthier food options.

“The food hub is important because it establishes the needed infrastructure to support an emerging industry in an area of West Virginia that desperately needs to diversify its economy,” he said. “The educational farm would provide farming apprenticeships and high school student internships.”

Sustainable Williamson already has identified 22 farmers within a 70-mile radius who are willing to work with the community on its goals, Hudson said.

The high school plans to have an even bigger impact on the agricultural landscape of Williamson next year. The school recently completed work on its high tunnel and has even installed chicken coops, Fisher said.

“I hope that it can instill some pride, and maybe even make the food system seem closer to home,” Fisher said. “Often, we have no clue where our food comes from. If they know it’s possible to grow the romaine lettuce they find on the salad bar right here in Mingo County, it makes everything seem more possible, especially when everyone works together.”

TVHS has received a $7,000 grant to participate in the Farm-to-School program next year. The next step in encouraging healthy eating, for Curry, is to work toward creating a community kitchen that can incubate healthy restaurants and other initiatives.

There are other things in the works, too. Sustainable Williamson has developed plans to stimulate the area’s economy, including trying to add diversified energy sector jobs, Hudson said. It also has joined the White House Rural Council, which is geared toward improving economic development and quality of life in rural parts of the country.

“It’s really interesting; when you’re doing community development, there’s a lot of fear, and one thing about this community is that they’ve taken the lead,” Hudson said. “There’s much more vibrance here than there was five years ago, and I think it’s because we’ve increased access to opportunities to improving lives.” 

For more information on Sustainable Williamson, visit www.sustainablewilliamson.org.

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189. 


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