Finding the “Spark Plugs” in Central Appalachia: Food-Based Rural Development through Non-Profit Organizations

Community-based gardening programs are well-documented for their positive impacts on urban sustainable development, including improved food security, human and social capital, and environmental quality. Yet research on similar programs in rural environments is nearly non-existent. Therefore, this study has employed a sequential exploratory mixed-method approach to examine the efforts of community-based gardening programs in Central Appalachia, a rural environment that has experienced a myriad of ecological, social, and economic issues impeding sustainable development. Working with the Berea College-based Grow Appalachia initiative, this study draws upon key informant interviews with Grow Appalachia staff and select site coordinators (n=26), over four months of ethnographic field observations, and a survey of program coordinators (n=31) to explore the benefits and barriers experienced by nonprofit organizations within the context of food-based rural development. This presentation will examine how the structure and goals of nonprofit host organizations affects the implementation and success of the Grow Appalachia program at the local level – and in turn, how the Grow Appalachia program has impacted the development of its host organizations and staff. This analysis will consider the tensions that arise between competing stakeholders and missions (eg. food security versus entrepreneurship development), as well as the contextual and organizational barriers that impede program operation and the strategies employed to overcome them. These results not only expand upon the scholarship of community food systems and organizational sociology through a rural lens, but also offer practical implications for effective food-based interventions and relevant state/federal development policy programs implemented in complex rural environments.