Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, is trying to discern what role his agency can play in supporting such ventures. Already, ARC has funded foodways activities in every Appalachian state, investing $7.6 million since 2001.
In Georgia, Gohl met a farmer who realized he could make more money if he didn't sell all his milk to a co-op. Now, the farmer holds some back, selling ice cream and non-homogenized milk in his own small shop and through local stores.
"We're not going to change the entire world through local foods," Gohl said, "but we're going to strengthen and make more vibrant many communities in Appalachia."
What's happening in West Virginia, he said, is impressive in both scope and enthusiasm.
Though it has just 1.8 million people, the state has emerged as a leader in the local-foods movement. Since 2005, the number of farmers' markets has more than tripled, from 30 to 93. Thanks to the state Department of Health and Human Resources, 18 of those now accept the debit cards that replaced food stamps.
Public health officials are on board because a region beset by high rates of obesity, diabetes and cancer could benefit from having easier access to healthy food. Allowing the use of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP cards, also aims to ensure farmers' markets don't just serve white-collar workers with higher incomes.
ARC officials say West Virginia has also gone further than most in drafting a statewide strategic plan, the "Road Map for a Food Economy." An official who helped schedule Gohl's visit calls it cutting-edge thinking.
ARC officials say West Virginia is recognizing and seizing opportunities where they make sense — and the demand has been there to support them.
While ARC, the USDA and others can support those initiatives, Gohl said, "the reality is the energy around local foods started in West Virginia, lives in West Virginia and is going to grow in West Virginia."