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Western Kansas food alliance opens doors for change, strengthens community, and more

Updated: Oct 31, 2019

This story is derived directly from Mark Winne's October 2019 blog article, which can be read in it's entirety HERE.



"We can't feed the world if we can't feed ourselves," admits Travis Rickford in an interview with Mark Winne, a senior advisor at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, author, professional speaker and consultant for local and state food policy councils.


Rickford, who is the director for LiveWell Northwest Kansas in Colby, joined other members of the Western Prairie Food, Farm, and Community Alliance in an October 2019 expose written by Winne about food insecurities of northwest Kansas. "Adapt and Win: The Kansas Story" identifies a lack of policies and programming throughout rural America, and gives voice to the domino effect of other problems that ripple across many small towns of northwest Kansas including how such scarcities create toxic stress and affect mental health.


Highlighting a movement by the Alliance, the article sheds light on an undercurrent of stress which spawns from a limited population, fewer tax dollars, fewer community leaders, growing farmsteads and generational debt, and explains how the Alliance is opening doors to more policy-based solutions which has begun to strengthen the sense of community and connectedness across the prairie.


With the exception of a handful of small towns like Colby, most of northwest Kansas is a food desert, explains Alliance member Misty Jimerson of the Thomas County Health Department. But how can this be true, in heart of the wheat belt where a person can take a short drive outside of any northwest Kansas town and be plunged into a sea of corn and wheat? The truth is that most people in northwest Kansas live more than 10 miles from a grocery store and are in need of improved access to healthy food, additional assistance for senior citizens and more food programming and policies. Jimerson explains that although an abundance of commodity farm products are grown, processed and sold locally, they tend not to make the seemingly short trek back to local grocery store shelves. "We're excited if one of our stores can get milk that's not past the expiration date," she admits.


Under the direction of the Alliance, members Jimerson, Rickford and others are finding actionable solutions to this problem and more.


The Alliance is comprised of representatives from nonprofit organizations, government agencies, county commissioners and conservation districts for each of the following northwest Kansas Counties: Cheyenne, Rawlins, Decatur, Sherman, Thomas, Sheridan, Walllace, Gove and Logan. The participation of other organizations and agencies augment the work and scope of the Alliance, says Winne in the article. They include LiveWell Northwest Kansas which recently reshaped its prevention mission to take a stronger systemic approach that emphasizes access to healthy food.


"You feel an undercurrent of stress in these (northwest Kansas) communities," acknowledges the director of LiveWell. "We don't have the tax base to invest in infrastructure like schools, and our population is declining, so we rely on connections and strong partnerships to make change." Additionally, the very few people willing and able to make a difference as a community leader are playing double- or even triple-duty, being spread thin among other volunteer, career and home obligations.


Winne's article underlines a higher rate of federal programs being utilized in rural areas which not only has economic implications but also emphasizes the critical needs of additional resources and assistance programs. The article goes on, giving voice to the resourcefulness and innovative thinking of the Alliance which is paramount in the region. But, even when applied flexibly, many systems and programs aren't enough, says Alliance member JoEllyn "Jo" Aragabright with the Kansas State University Research and Extension SNAP-Ed program.


"It's not true that all we have to do is educate people. We know that a variety of approaches are necessary," she says. As the Alliance's members see farms get bigger and fewer, and fall ever deeper into the commodity agriculture trap, there's an acknowledgement that the consolidation of farming across the prairie has hurt not only communities but also a sense of community and primarily burdens the families who support it.


The financial stresses and debt that is passed from one farming generation to the next is staggering, adds Rickford. "Farmer debt is getting bigger and is often inherited by the children." And, the stresses of commodity producers are also responsible for a growing number of mental health issues, he adds. Rickford sums up the challenges facing the region's agriculture and communities with a bold statement: "All those living in under-resourced rural America suffer from inequity."


Against this backdrop, the Alliance and a growing number of other publicly interested organizations are opening doors to more policy-based solutions, explains Winne. The Alliance has a stake in spotlighting and nurturing new projects that not only build food security but also strengthen community. These projects foster visions of community salvation and foundations in innovation, drawing and retaining young people and young families, engaging a new class of entrepreneurial pioneers, with much focus being directed towards food and farming.


What is so blatantly apparent across northwest Kansas, explains Winne, is how essential relationships are to the process of refashioning communities and food systems, and the Alliance gives people a table around which to do just that. He adds that food policy councils in Kansas are not only a vital, democratic force that add equity and value to their local food systems, they are a key component in strengthening regional economies and revitalizing rural life.


ABOUT MARK WINNE

Until 2003, Winne was the executive director of the Hartford Food System, a private non-profit agency that works on food and hunger issues in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. His successes include the development of commercial food businesses, and self-help projects that assist lower income and elderly people. Winne is also a co-founder of many food and agriculture policy groups and serves currently as a Senior Advisor to the Food Policy Networks Project at the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future. In addition, he also writes, speaks and consults on community food system topics including hunger and food insecurity, local and regional agriculture, community food assessment, and food policy.


IMPORTANT LINKS


  • Winne blogs regularly at www.markwinne.com.

  • Read Mark Winne's full October 2019 article, "Adapt and Win: The Kansas Story," HERE.

  • Learn more about the Western Prairie Food, Farm and Community Alliance HERE.