Grow Ohio Valley helping people eat, feel healthier

By LINDA HARRIS

The State Journal

WHEELING, W.Va.  — Sam Amberg says it’s never too late to learn good food habits.

Amberg is part of Grow Ohio Valley, a non-profit focused on improving food security in the Ohio Valley. That means making sure even the poorest residents “know where their next nutritionally balanced and healthy meal is coming from, exactly how to get that food on their table and have all the nutrients and vitamins they need to live a happy and healthy life,” she said.

Founded three years ago, Grow Ohio Valley puts locally grown produce into the hands of residents throughout Ohio County and surrounding communities. Grow Ohio Valley augments the produce harvested from its five urban farms with fruits and vegetables raised by 10 to 20 area farmers.

“Every day in the Northern Panhandle and, by extension, throughout the state, you have personal encounters with people who are unhealthy — whether it’s someone who is drug addicted, obese, suffers from hypertension or Type II diabetes,” Grow Ohio Valley Executive Director and co-founder Ken Peralta said. “The trend lines are really staggering. This is really an antidote to that.”

The group distributes food items — locally-grown produce, eggs and honey — via a mobile market truck that travels to 13 locations in Ohio and Marshall counties in season. They’re currently in negotiations with the City of Wheeling to open a brick-and-mortar store in the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Center in the downtown area. Amberg said they’re hoping to have the store up-and-running by August.

Grow Ohio Valley’s Danny Swann said that’s huge.

“The mobile market truck is great, we can go into communities that are underserved,” Swann said. “We may be in a community a few hours a week, then because it’s an ‘outdoor experience’ it stops in October. And, because it’s a mobile truck, we can’t do meat and we can’t do dairy. I think the mobile truck is great and we’ll keep doing it because we believe in its mission, but this store, there’s just so much more we can do, so much more we can carry that’s not currently offered.”

While Grow Ohio Valley’s core mission is to change eating habits for low income populations, “other folks can shop with us, too,” Amberg said. “And we also double the value for anyone shopping with SNAP or food stamps (and) accept senior vouchers.”

Eating fast food, processed meats and sugary sodas is “cheap, fast, easy calories that shut kids up right away,” Peralta said. “This is really about changing behaviors, which takes longer, and showing people new ways to do things. Like last year, we did a class on ‘fast food with slow cookers.’ We got people slow cookers and teamed up with West Virginia Northern Community College to show people how they could throw (ingredients) in the cooker and turn it on, then when they come home they have dinner for their family for two or three days. It takes time, it takes persistence to show people … what the possibilities are.”

Swann said changing the public’s attitudes and eating habits takes time and persistence.

“As a community, we can make the decision that healthy food and access to it , the option to have healthy foods is a human right,” he said. “We can say we want that for all of us … But (not) everybody will take that option, that’s where education comes in — we need to make people understand the benefits of healthy foods and the consequences of junk food, and then give them the resources to act on that information.”

Amberg said they also work with Wheeling Health Right to provide weekly “prescriptions” of fresh fruit and vegetables for about 50 participating residents of Ohio and Marshall counties suffering from diet-related health issues like Type II diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Grow Ohio Valley also helped put in gardens at a handful of schools in the area and has developed a 106-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program: Residents pay up front for 15 weeks of locally grown produce, which is then delivered to them on a weekly basis in season.

“There are a lot of different ways we can tackle helping people eat more fruits and veggies,” she said. “We like to take a broad approach.”

In addition to growing a healthy community and population, Amberg said they’re also hoping to be an economic driver by developing a market for locally grown produce.

“It’s part of the greater mission,” she said. “We’re hoping to grow the local food economy and create a driver to show that it’s viable, that people want to eat food that’s grown where they live and is healthy for you.”

Staff writer Linda Harris can be reached at 304-374-0403 or email [email protected]

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