Admittedly, I’ve been hesitating to post on the blog lately. How to sum up our VALOR trips to Northern VA, DC, and the Shenandoah Valley?! They were such rich visits! (I did put together an Instagram slide show with images of some of our Northern VA/DC visits if you’re curious.) While I keep working on this, here are a few general thoughts that these sessions, and some recent news articles, have generated for me.
Being a city dweller for the last decade and the foreseeable future, I think a lot about the differences between rural and urban communities, as well as what we share in common. Is it because I’m in VALOR and have the privilege of visiting VA’s rural communities that I have a heightened awareness of this? Because of the field I work in? Or because it seems like “the rural urban divide” is in the news more than it has been in the last decade? It’s probably a combination of all of these things, although as to whether rural America is in the news more, I don’t actually know. But I have to say that a lot of the coverage that I see in major news outlets lately is quite worrisome.
I’m sharing a recent one-page opinion piece from Jerry Hagstrom of The Hagstrom Report entitled “Rural America’s Image Problem.” This piece summarizes some of the articles that I have also read recently. The Wall Street Journal article that he references certainly got my attention. The national data the WSJ article presents on measures of health and economic well-being is deeply concerning.*
We’ve seen some thriving rural communities in Virginia through VALOR to date, although, to be sure, often we’re visiting with successful farmers and other rural business entrepreneurs. This is not to gloss over the hard road that many of them traveled to get there nor the fact that even the most prosperous communities are home to residents struggling to some degree. Side note: I do wonder if and how our upcoming session in SW VA may be different from our previous visits.
I post Mr. Hagstrom’s summary not for the policy and national politics it speaks to – certainly these are critical issues – but for the survey data and other observations that he shares about how rural and urban America seem to perceive one another. I share this as a point of discussion. Do you hear (or believe) that rural communities care more for their neighbors than people in urban communities do? Do you think that “rural America” is painted as if it is largely the same? (I know I read articles now and then that make me feel that way.) Does rural America have “an image problem?”
My current project relates to building our regional food economy and connecting more local farmers to the metro Washington, D.C. area. I think food and agriculture provide some of the best opportunities to strengthen relationships between urban and rural communities. This is not an original idea or new phenomenon, however, much of our food does not come from our region. It certainly seems like there’s the potential for a lot more and no shortage of interest. This will require some investment, private and public. What are the considerations and issues that rural farmers and urban consumers (and food/farm entrepreneurs) should keep in mind to build new, mutually beneficial relationships? To make the case for investment in food and agriculture in urban, suburban, and rural communities? Can these relationships help to improve some of the perceptions urban and rural America may have about the other?
* Lest any of us think that cities are no longer experiencing their own urgent, comparable challenges, as a place like D.C. continues to grow and prosper, the gains are very uneven. There are communities in the city that continue to grapple with high rates of unemployment, poverty, lack of opportunity, and the health problems that accompany this. We didn’t visit these neighborhoods while we were in D.C., but we did meet some of the people and organizations working to improve healthy food access and opportunity in them.