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West Virginia University Leads Initiative to Boost Farmland Access and Support Underserved Farmers

WVU Photo/Hunter Tankersley

The initiative aims to transform agricultural access and education across four states, empowering veterans, new farmers and communities.

West Virginia University (WVU) is leading a national initiative aimed at expanding farmland accessibility to underserved populations. This effort is also designed to assist producers in securing working capital and improving food distribution channels.

The WVU Institute for Community and Rural Health (ICRH) received a five-year, $8.5 million cooperative agreement grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Increasing Land Access Program, a part of the initiatives funded under President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Entitled “Working Lands of Central Appalachia,” this WVU-led project will span across West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. Collaborating with 11 state, regional, and national organizations, the initiative will focus on agricultural workforce training, developing farm-to-institution markets, and promoting the concept of food as medicine. The primary goal is to support underserved veterans, people with limited resources, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

ICRH research associate Megan Govindan is spearheading the regional effort.

“By engaging state institutions to assess demands for local food procurement and community benefit programs, this project supports healthier food systems in the community to address social determinants of health,” Govindan said in a WVU news release.

Govindan elaborated on the mission to increase land accessibility.

“The goal of increasing land access is to be able to support our agricultural future by utilizing existing markets and finding sources of capital, whether that be policy-focused or otherwise,” she said. “West Virginia leads the nation in small, family-owned farms. Supporting agricultural communities is critical to increasing food access.”

The project will include audits of public and private holdings to facilitate this increase.

Public farmlands are those owned by entities such as the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, WVU and community hospitals. Researchers will leverage insights from landowners to boost access and production on these lands. Govindan said private farmlands often involve heirs’ property, which is inherited land without a formal will or deed, complicating federal benefit claims for descendants. As private lands open, she expects new opportunities for agricultural training and career matchmaking.

Project partners are set to enhance government policy support requiring certain institutions to incorporate fresh food into their meal plans and mandate nonprofit hospitals to conduct community health needs assessments. Utilizing this data, a structured collaborative will be formed to manage local food procurement and community benefits.

“As we’re engaging those hospitals through community benefit, it opens the opportunity for all nonprofits to be able to engage and accelerate their institutional investment,” Govindan explained. “We’ll have a standardized language of what those activities are so they can be invested in a uniform way and then replicated and scaled across the region.”

Additionally, organization partners will provide training for farmers on beginning or expanding their sales to institutions and community markets.

To enhance community access to fresh food, the consortium will conduct a needs assessment and develop a curriculum that integrates agriculture and health.

“With this curriculum we’re not only talking about the opportunities within agriculture, but how to be able to make our communities more food secure,” Govindan said.

Govindan also highlighted the educational benefits for students involved.

“This project provides health science students with food as medicine experiences that will improve their ability to practice in rural areas, while addressing social determinants of health and engaging national, regional, and state partners,” she said.

Furthermore, the project aims to boost healthcare practitioner recruitment and retention by addressing various systems impacting population health.