Can Local Food Help Appalachia Build a Post-Coal Future?

Can Local Food Help Appalachia Build a Post-Coal Future?

Can Local Food Help Appalachia Build a Post-Coal Future?

From shucky beans to kilt lettuce, the region’s cuisine reflects a dual reality of poverty and ingenuity.


Appalachia is where the white trash lives, or so the stereotype goes. Ask the average outsider what Appalachians eat, and they may deliver a similar answer: trash. McNuggets, maybe, or lots of bacon and gravy. Heart-attack food. People choose the stories that they want to believe, and the myth of the dumb, fat hillbilly is an old and popular one. “The term ‘white trash’ is class disparagement due to economics,” the author and East Kentucky native Chris Offutt wrote in a 2015 essay for the Oxford American. “I am trash because of where I’m from. I am trash because of where I shop. I am trash because of what I eat.” If people are trash, their food must be, too.

But the story of Appalachian food, like Appalachia itself, is a complicated one. Advocates say that both are entering a new, more optimistic era; that a resurgence in local farming, coupled with renewed interest in traditional Appalachian foodways, could help steer the region toward an environmentally and economically sustainable post-coal future. And unlike the historical attempts to develop Appalachia—imposed principally by external actors, both public and private—food and farming are located well within the region’s own history of political resistance.

“When the company thugs came in to throw an agitating or striking coal miner out of their house, they destroyed the gardens and confiscated or killed the animals that provide food,” notes Ronni Lundy, the author of Victuals: An Appalachian Journey, With Recipes. “You know, they got it—the ability to grow food is power in the hands of people they wanted to make powerless.”

And it remains a source of power, say the advocates behind Appalachia’s food renaissance.

“What makes us unique is that we do have a strong food culture here,” says Lora Smith, co-founder of the Appalachian Food Summit. “There are things that are produced in Appalachian crops that aren’t necessarily produced anywhere else.”

From shucky beans to pickled corn and kilt lettuce, Appalachian food reflects dual realities: poverty and ingenuity. Appalachia is a large region spanning 13 states, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission’s definition, and the amount of arable land varies widely among them. In the southern Appalachians, where the mountains widen out and soften into valleys and fields, larger-scale farming is possible. In the coal fields, however, arable land shrinks, restricting the inhabitants to small-scale farms and grazing livestock. Factor in a sharp winter, which the southern low country mostly lacks, and the specific character of Appalachian foodways begins to make sense. It’s heavy on beans and grains, and greens that can be foraged or grown in sustenance gardens. Pig products feature heavily, because pigs are relatively easy to raise in the mountains.

To survive harsh winters and harsher topographies, Appalachians learned to adapt. Smith cites shucky beans as an example: “They have these big pods, and they were selected and grown because they have the most protein. People can dry them and then, in the middle of winter, cook them so they taste like smoked meat. I mean, that’s pretty ingenious.” The lazy-hillbilly stereotype doesn’t survive scrutiny of the foods that hillbillies invented.

Appalachian food is also far more culturally diverse than people realize, Lundy says. Its influences reflect not just an influx of European settlers—the famous Scotch-Irish in addition to Italians, French Huguenots, and others—but also Native American and African diets. This diversity loops back to coal, too, as so many Appalachian stories seem to do. “The story was that, once the miners began to strike and to ask for better wages and conditions,” Lundy explains, “instead of meeting those demands, the coal-mine owners recruited foreign miners to come in. As the agitation continued, they brought in more and more people.” If you need evidence to reject the myth of a monolithically white Appalachia, you don’t need to look much further than its food. Nor is it much of a coincidence that class conflict—warfare, really—shaped the same cuisine.

Lundy is careful to note that Appalachian foodways never disappeared. The same currents that gave Appalachian food its depth and variety also threatened its survival: The introduction of fast, cheap food, ranging from Jiffy cornbread mix to McDonald’s, provided an alternative to labor-intensive farming and cookery. The decline of coal is another factor. As coal jobs inexorably disappear, service jobs, frequently at fast-food restaurants, proliferate: “Coal is all there is in Appalachia, unless you join the ranks of the working poor for a part time job at a grocery store, fast food joint, or the local Wal-Mart,” writes Nick Mullins, a former fifth-generation coal miner, on his personal blog.

These jobs tend to pay less than jobs in coal, partly because most aren’t unionized, and thus employees have to work long hours to support their families. That effectively prevents them from growing food and raising livestock, and so they remain dependent on the availability of fast, cheap food. “Industrialization not only provides you with money to buy other food; it also deprives you of fresh water, soil, and air,” Lundy observes. “It deprives you of time to provide food for your family to last through the long haul.” The dynamic bears a basic resemblance to that of Appalachia’s company towns, where coal miners were paid in scrip that could only be used at company stores. The contemporary exploitation isn’t quite as blatant, but it still exists, and it still traps communities in closed, controlled systems that profit bosses the people here will never meet.

For Appalachia’s poorest, capitalism creates a deadly double dilemma. First it changed the way they eat, and then it deprived them of access to health care. “We don’t live in food deserts here; we live in what some people call ‘food swamps,’” says Smith. “I’m sitting in Hazard, Kentucky, and I’m surrounded by fast-food restaurants. It’s not that people don’t have access to food—it’s that they don’t have access to healthy food.”

People in Appalachia are still disproportionately more likely to die young: According to an August 2017 study, Appalachia’s infant mortality rate is 16 percent higher than the rest of the country’s, and between 2009 and 2013 the gap between the average Appalachian’s life expectancy and the average American’s actually increased, from 0.6 to 2.4 years. That deficit is even larger for Appalachians of color.

The study’s authors attributed this gap to a variety of factors, including suicide, the opioid epidemic, and chronic lower respiratory disease. But other illnesses, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are linked to diet. The Centers for Disease Control reports that more than 33 percent of the so-called “diabetes belt” lies in central and south Appalachia, and the rates of diabetes increase further in the region’s poorest counties. When entities like the Appalachian Regional Commission talk about economic transition, these are the sorts of inequalities they hope to resolve.

And the region’s renewed farm and food scene could help. “Right now, we’re seeing new farmers’ markets coming online, new farmers coming online, and really innovative projects,” Smith says, pointing to the Farmacy project in Whitesburg, Kentucky, as an example. A partnership between the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, the Community Farm Alliance, and Grow Appalachia, the project is open to all pregnant women and Type I diabetes patients regardless of income; people who are obese, or who suffer from Type II diabetes or hypertension, can participate if their income meets certain criteria. According to the project’s website, participants receive a “prescription” for a voucher, which they can use at local farmers’ markets.

According to the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, the results have been dramatic. A joint survey conducted by the MCHC and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition shows that 53.8 percent of the participants spent less on health care as a result. Other data collected by the MCHC reveal a cumulative 2,776-point drop in glucose levels. Appalachia needs more than farmers’ markets, but remedying its “food swamp” could save lives.

The Farmacy doesn’t exist in isolation. Other projects abound: Pikeville, Kentucky’s AppHarvest says that its new greenhouse will employ 140 people in addition to increasing access to fresh produce. Some projects are smaller-scale, consisting of local families who develop abandoned mine land for farms or vineyards; some grow heirloom Appalachian crops, but most grow the sorts of fruits and vegetables that are popular throughout the country. One former miner told the environmental organization Appalachian Voices that his land turned out to be suited to growing blueberries. Some of these projects also get assistance from the federal government. On its website, the Appalachian Regional Commission calls local food a “targeted investment sector,” and its 2016–20 strategic plan boasts initiatives like “Bon Appetit Appalachia!,” a campaign that highlights over 800 culinary destinations around the region. The ARC says it intends to expand the campaign, which supports its other investments in the tourism industry.

This is a clear opportunity for local farmers and advocates to reclaim an integral piece of Appalachian identity. But expansion notwithstanding, this burgeoning food movement is still in its nascent stages. It’s difficult to know the precise effect that it will have on the regional economy—whether it will secure a real, independent future for a region that sorely needs one, or whether its potential will be stymied by national forces beyond its control. And linking it to tourism, as the ARC does, may perpetuate rather than resolve the region’s doomed relationship with extractive capitalism.

Coal may be declining, but in some respects it may never really die. The industry has imprinted itself deeply in Appalachia’s bones, both by degrading its natural resources and by facilitating the concentration of land ownership. Anthony Flaccavento, a farmer in Washington County, Virginia, and a former Democratic candidate for Congress, says that while most mine land will never be “prime agricultural land…that doesn’t mean that the downstream effects of strip mining and even some deep mining didn’t impact water resources. Because we know it did.” Among these effects, Flaccavento says, is the contamination of streams and water sources and the dumping of “overburden,” the soil and rock that has been removed for the purposes of mining.

The actions of industries like coal—timber is another culprit—also makes land difficult for would-be farmers to obtain. A significant portion of Appalachian land is still owned by people and corporations that aren’t actually based in the area. “Broadly speaking, anywhere from a third to three-quarters of the land in some counties is owned by outside industries,” says historian Elizabeth Catte, author of the forthcoming What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. The situation is improving, she adds; in West Virginia, for example, much of the land is shifting from absentee to in-state ownership. But inequities remain. “You can’t get a fair market value of the land because people value the land so much,” Catte says.

Lundy sees a similar problem in western North Carolina, where she lives, though it can’t be pinned entirely on the coal or timber industry. Farmers “can’t buy additional land,” she says, “because it’s priced for people who want to build second homes—people who largely come into the region for a limited period of time.”

This hints at one of the chief dilemmas inherent in the prospect of food as the driver of an economic renaissance. The region needs tourists, and as Asheville, North Carolina, has discovered, a food scene draws them in. But in order to grow that food—even the traditional Appalachian crops that thrive on small-scale farms and gardens—you need land, and those same tourists complicate an already difficult market for it. Farmers also need to make a living, which means they have to charge certain prices for their food. “It’s a dilemma,” Flaccavento admits, but adds: “We were pretty conscious of the critique of the local-food movement and the organic-food movement as being for the elites.”

Flaccavento says that in addition to Whitesburg’s Farmacy program, the farmers’ markets in Abingdon and St. Paul, Virginia, accept EBT, and that despite the obstacles, the interest in farming continues to grow—and so does the demand for healthy food. “If you took a snapshot of West Virginia, southwest Virginia, east Tennessee, and Kentucky now compared to 20 years ago, it’s a pretty dramatic difference,” Flaccavento says. “There’s a lot more farming going on.” Many of these new farmers, he notes, are young people who either hail from Appalachia or move there as adults. “The market demand for [healthy food] is not what it is on the outskirts of, say, Philadelphia,” he adds, “but it’s pretty substantial.”

“Is food the solution to Appalachia’s problem?” Lundy asks rhetorically. “No—food is a piece you have to weave a larger net around. But it’s there, and it’s this wonderful thing that we have. We’ve got to be careful not to have it extracted from us, but we can cultivate it in a way that feeds tourists as well as the people who live here.”

Food is the story of the people who invented it, and for Appalachia, it’s a definitive rebuttal to tired stereotypes. Its renaissance here tells us something else: If the region’s economic transition falters, it will be because of failures in federal policy—a refusal to raise the minimum wage and to expand access to health care—and not because of Appalachia’s cultural deficiencies. There are no trash people, and there is no trash food. There are only trash politics.

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