As the low-wealth, Appalachian state of West Virginia develops ways to rebuild and diversify its economy beyond mountaintop-removal coal mining and other traditional regional industries, some innovators are turning to a fundamental resource—locally grown food.
Elizabeth Spellman JD'13, executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, is driving efforts to establish a more sustainable future by building networks of farmers and regional food advocates.
Her efforts are generating great results. The number of producer cooperatives and food hubs—which collect, market and distribute locally grown food—is growing quickly in West Virginia, to the benefit of farmers and consumers.
"We're lucky in West Virginia in that most of our farms are small family farms, so it's already a model that's set up to serve communities and not commodity markets. It's a hugely generative time in Appalachia as the economy transitions to sustainable solutions," Spellman says.
Based in Fayetteville, Spellman focuses on state food policy, providing trainings and workshops for farmers and food-related businesses, and organizing communities around such collaborative projects as food hubs and policy work.
Spellman's work reinforces the viability of cooperatives, which is a key part of developing local economies in the region. More co-ops incorporate every year in West Virginia.
"This work—the trainings and law changing—involves stakeholders every step of the way, which is a new and important self-advocacy model for West Virginia, where constituents are in very isolated, rural places with little access to decision-makers," she says.
At VLS, Spellman was stimulated by the range of specialty options. "I was introduced to what felt like the whole universe of environmental law possibilities," she says.
As the VLS Center for Agriculture and Food Systems (CAFS) came online, Spellman benefited from working with CAFS Director Laurie Ristino and students active with the Food and Agricultural Law Society.
"The Semester-in-Practice program also allowed me to delve into a combination of community organizing and community lawyering that has served me in my current role," Spellman says. "I get to work with passionate, interesting, thoughtful and cooperative people."