MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A group of West Virginia University students is tackling a project to help people in “food deserts” get good food.

The students in business college professor John Saldanha’s Supply Chain Technology class are working with Grow Ohio Valley to build a model program.

“This program is going to help farmers bring their food to a place where you’ll be able to buy it at an affordable rate,” said Rena Kobelak, one if the two project leads. “And when I say food, I mean healthy, fresh, local produce.”

The USDA defines a food desert an area lacking “fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.”

To qualify, at least 500 people or at least 33 percent of the census tract’s population must reside more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store. For rural areas, the distance is more than 10 miles.

Grow Ohio Valley (GOV) is a Wheeling-based nonprofit aimed at getting fresh, local food to people who need it, and teaching them how to grow and prepare it, and will be opening a public market in May. Founded in 2104, it turned 2 acres of abandoned urban land into vegetable farms, put another 3.5 rural acres into production and planted a 3.5 acre orchard in Wheeling.

Culminating the first phase of the project, the 44 members of the six student working groups offered PowerPoint presentations on their research during a lunch meeting Friday afternoon. The presentations included a 3-D model of the public market floor plan to aid in product placement and a produce-cooling prototype to increase the shelf life of produce.

Kobelak said the groups are Demand Management, Production Processes, Materials Handling, Cold Storage, Public Marketing Offering and Information Systems. “Those six groups tackled all the problems from the moment you’re harvesting food out of the ground to when it’s being purchased at the store, the public market.”

The idea, she said, is not only to help GOV but to build a working model for other food co-ops across the state to use to bring their food to other food deserts.

Saldanha said he connected with GOV during a food deserts workshop in Canonsburg. Pa.

The ultimate goal of the GOV collaboration, he said, is to “stimulate other suppliers and producers in the area, once local food is available and people start buying it, those producers can also start growing and meeting the local demand.”

That model, he said, could help answer the question: How do you make something like this in the local system succeed? The students have been working on it for nearly four months.

Everything should come from within five miles of Wheeling, he said. Then they’ll look farther out – 5, 20, 50 miles. “As the local producers see that, yes, there’s a market for their food, they’re going to start producing and fill that gap themselves.”

Next semester, a management information systems class will work the knowledge gleaned by the Information Systems group, he said, and build a cloud database for the producers to manage transactions.

Tweet David Beard @dbeardtdp  Email dbeard@dominionpost.com

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