Stories of Community Food Work in Appalachia: Possibilities for Hope and Transformation

This post was contributed by Dr. Kim Niewolny.

When facing a complex problem like food insecurity, “seeing” the system “better” means reading a multiplicity of realities and generating new ways to engage them…

The Appalachian Foodshed Project (AFP) aims to address issues of community food security in West Virginia and the Appalachian areas of North Carolina and Virginia through a regional research, outreach, and educational effort. This work includes learning from, and building relationships with, a diversity of stakeholders related to:

  • Community and economic development;
  • Health and nutrition;
  • Environmental advocacy;
  • Social justice; and
  • Agricultural production, processing, and distribution.

The hopefulness of this effort lies in the creation of a “common agenda” that adheres to the values of the individuals and organizations making positive changes across the food system in our Appalachian region.

One of the AFP’s aims is to help build community capacity and organizational cohesion across the food system in the region. This work is being addressed in a number of ways. In spring 2013, an initiative was launched to create and share narratives or “stories” that illustrate the lived experiences of the people involved in a variety of Appalachian organizations, groups, and networks that are connected to the broader issues of community food security and food system change in the region. The impetus for creating these stories comes from the individuals themselves who are eager to create a regional network, yet struggle with the process of crafting and weaving their stories and actions together. Thus, the “stories of community food work in Appalachia” initiative was launched.

Since 2013, we have generated over 30 narratives, or “practice stories,” from regional activists, educators, and practitioners who operate in community food work (Slocum, 2007). These actors are involved in a variety of organizations, but each is, in some way, connected to the complex issues of food system change. The stories were co-created to emphasize the voice of the storyteller in the journey of her/his/their community food work, experiences in that work, and words of reflection and hope for the future. These narratives are a personal testament to the triumphs and challenges of community food work in the region. They are meant to be spaces for learning for all who read them, and the extent of their use and meaning go as far as our imaginations can take them. They also generate opportunity for us to narrate our own stories of change—helping to humanize the “wicked problem” of food insecurity while creating new possibilities in our everyday work of resistance and learning. Community food work, in this way, is a collective journey, and these narratives, we hope, can further bind the region and the work together.

Our general approach to craft these stories is in the realm of narrative inquiry (Connelly & Clandinin, 2005). We use the definition of “narrative” to mean both a process and a product in this particular design and approach (Richmond, 2002). This includes treating the stories as both a process of reflexivity through storytelling and the products of engaging, activity and performativity, with everyday knowledges that inform community food work practice.

corner store

I think that this corner store project really shows that this work has to be benefitting all of the key players. The store-owner has to be making money off of it; it has to be at a price that the people are willing and able to pay for it, and then it needs to be reliable…. I think food systems work is very segregated, like “We’re doing it for obesity,” and “Well, we’re doing it for farmers’ rights.” And then, “Well, we’re doing it for animal rights.” And it’s like “No, no, we’re all doing the same thing.” If we could just find some common language and start breaking down some of those barriers. Like who doesn’t want healthy corner store options that the owner is making money off of? The more money she makes the more taxes she has to pay and the more we get that money back. So it’s like every single avenue. The more healthy food she sells the more healthy food she can buy. The more healthy food she can buy the more farmers get to produce them. It’s like there’s a whole cycle of people who are being affected, but because we so often only think of like “You only care about it being low calorie, you only care about it being local, and you only care…” It’s like, “We’re all working towards the same thing. Our partners can really look like anything as long as that common goal is shared.

It is important to note that the narratives have a number of intersections with learning in the region and beyond. This includes recognizing the personal and collective experiences of the work itself. These stories also comprise newly crafted knowledges and realities of community food work from the Appalachian communities through the creation and dissemination of the stories. The stories also have purpose in generating creativity and idea-making capacity within our university classrooms and public settings in the reading and (re)telling of these stories of cultural work. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we suggest that the generative quality of the narratives make much needed space for possibilities and strategies in our learning of community food work in Appalachia and beyond.

We invite you to spend time with these stories of possibility, hope and transformation.

Please visit:

Please revisit often, as we will be posting new stories throughout spring 2016.


For more information, contact: Kim Niewolny; Associate Professor, Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education; Virginia Tech;



Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (2005).  Narrative inquiry.  In J. Green, G. Camilli, & P. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of complementary methods in educational research (pp. 477-489).  Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Richmond, H. (2002). Learners’ lives: A narrative analysis. The Qualitative Report, 7(3).

Slocum, R. (2007). Whiteness, space and alternative food practice. Geoforum, 38, 520-533.



First and most importantly, a special thank you goes to each of the story tellers and interviewers for their generosity and creativity. I am very grateful for the narrative insights and editorial expertise of Becca Ligrani, Shreya Mitra, and Garland Mason. Many thanks also goes to Phil D’Adamo-Damery and Nikki D’Adamo-Damery for their intellectual contributions and commitment to the project and much more.


Stories of Community Food Work: An Initiative of the Appalachian Foodshed Project. Funded through a USDA NIFA-AFRI Grant (Award No. 2011-68004-30079).



Niewolny, K. & D’Adamo-Damery, P. (In Press). Learning through story as political praxis: The role of narratives in community food work. In Sumner, J. (Ed.), Learning, food, and sustainability: Sites for resistance and change. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.