BY ELEANOR MARSHALL, DIRECTOR OF SPECIAL PROJECTS, GROW OHIO VALLEY
One year ago I was living on a rural farm outside of Atlanta, Georgia, finishing up an organic farm apprenticeship. I loved farming – caring for plants and selling beautiful, fresh-picked produce – but our impact was limited. Every week, we sold to the same farmer’s market regulars and charged high prices to support our farm. I wanted to know how sustainable farming and the local food movement could be more connected to community health and economic development.
I found the position at Grow Ohio Valley through Good Food Jobs and became a VISTA (Volunteer in Service to America) sponsored by The Hub as a result, somewhat on accident. Through a year of service, I’ve come to believe VISTA provides an opportunity to do some of the most committed and impactful service work in the country. It’s not glamorous and not always fun or gratifying to do capacity-building, but it is powerful to participate in building infrastructure and systems to sustain enduring change.
Resource-constrained nonprofits in West Virginia and across the country have a great need for skilled and dedicated coordinators, fundraisers, marketing professionals, and program developers. In many cases, this need is as great or even greater than for volunteers that do the most visible and direct service, like serving meals at a soup kitchen or harvesting and delivering produce.
Grow Ohio Valley’s vision is to achieve regional food security: access to safe, nutritious and affordable food for all people. I find power and elegance in a theory of change that connects economic opportunities for local farmers to food access programs that help fresh and nutritious food reach the populations of greatest need. This is the opposite of extractive industry: a theory of economic growth based on regeneration. When a patchwork of local farms flourishes, abundance is generated through care for the health of people and the planet – and shared among many owners. Each seed planted, fresh vegetable sold at market, or dollar re-circulated in the local economy is an investment in this place and in its future.
My VISTA service was centered on the creation of the Public Market: a local and natural foods store set to open in downtown Wheeling in May 2019. The market works at the intersection of three community needs: to eliminate a USDA-classified food desert that spans all of downtown Wheeling, to create a profitable year-round outlet for local farmers where none exists, and to fill an empty storefront in a revitalizing downtown.
I would never have gotten the opportunity to gain diverse experience in so many aspects of a project start-up if my position had been a regular salaried job. I wasn’t traditionally qualified! Through VISTA, I got to jump a few rungs on the career ladder, and more importantly, develop skills that will serve me professionally and personally in ways I can’t even foresee.
I didn’t know what I was getting into with this Public Market project, or what a fruitful challenge it would be. Over the past year, I’ve met farmers from Amish growers to Pittsburgh urban gardeners, learning about their businesses and seeking out the most nutritious & delicious local food for the market. I’ve learned to write a business plan, make demand forecasts and sales projections, and (almost) understand basic architecture plans. And I’ve been welcomed by a beautiful East Wheeling community and the Grow Ohio Valley family of eccentrics and visionaries, some of the most committed people I’ve had the privilege of learning from.
I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to join Grow Ohio Valley’s staff following my VISTA term. The Public Market is set to open its doors this coming May, and I will continue to coordinate the project and see it through to its launch as my highest priority. My new title is “Director of Special Projects” and my role has expanded from a singular focus on the Public Market to involvement in Grow Ohio Valley’s new development and continued growth on an organizational level.