Rural Madison announces partnership in food enterprise center
Joins with other organizations to make George Washington Carver center a reality
BY BECCA PIZMOHT
Billed as the ultimate recycling project, the GWCFEC plans to rehabilitate and restore the facilities at the historic former all-black George Washington Carver Regional High School on Route 15 in Culpeper County. The building has been virtually unused since the early 1960’s when Virginia’s public schools were desegregated.
A consortium of groups is involved including the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission, Cooperative Extension, Rural Madison and the George Washington Carver Regional High School Alumni Association, all of which are trying to return the property to a productive use that respects the facility’s history.
The plan is for the facility to host a broad range of agricultural activities including a food processing center where small farmers can prepare products for market, produce storage, large plot agricultural research, and culinary training. The group’s mission is to provide infrastructure for year-round production of healthy and affordable food.
Back in 2014, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission partnered with the Virginia Food Enterprise Center and Cooperative Extension to complete a study to determine the viability of turning the former George Washington Carver Regional High School facilities into a multi-use agricultural center.
Last May and June, consultants for the project held regional focus group sessions with farmers, growers, producers, gardeners and other food entrepreneurs within the region to determine the need and interest level for the GWCFEC.
The results of this research show both a need and a desire for a food enterprise center within this area. The study found that there was interest in local food products and a need for a facility to process local products.
Janet Bearden, GWCFEC Team Leader, has been a driving force behind the project and has brought her 30 years of management experience to the group. As a volunteer for MESA, she saw a need for affordable, locally grown food. As early as 2009, she began efforts to make locally grown food available year-round.
“My passion has been making wholesome locally grown food available year-round, giving farmers additional markets and providing jobs to those who need them,” Bearden said. ‘The funding we’ve previously helped us carry out the feasibility study, everything else has been done by volunteers. Now we’re developing funding proposals for the project to move on to the next phase.”
Plans include a certified commercial kitchen so that local farmers and growers can process small batches of value-added products—sauces, jams or jellies—for sale to the public, storage facilities for small producers, agricultural research plots, and an educational center. Ren LeVally, vice president of Rural Madison, sees a need for an agricultural support center and is passionate about the project.
“I’m very hopeful about this,” he said. “Our visions (Rural Madison and GWCFEC) are so closely aligned they are almost the same. We have a need to support our community and a project like this helps assure the long-term viability of Madison’s economy. Madison is an agricultural community; our young people see limited opportunities and leave. This can be a great way to help farmers and the community as a whole.”
Jill Grace Jefferson, the volunteer project coordinator, believes that the pieces are coming together for the project and that it is possible parts of the center will be operational within the calendar year.
“We have plans in place, as soon as there is funding, we will be able to start on each aspect of the project,” she said. “As we secure the funding it’s like putting another piece of the puzzle in place. This is a great project on many levels. It allows us to re-use an empty facility providing support and training to rural communities. While we can’t erase the past, we can use this facility in such a way as to honor [its] history while providing support to the community.”
It is hoped that the facility will be by offering certified kitchen rentals and for-profit food service training classes.
LeVally believes that the GWCFEC has the potential to help the region on several levels.
“This facility can help our community in workforce development and in support of agribusiness but it also serves individuals by making healthy and affordable foods more readily available,” he said. “My personal interest is in human health and nutrition. Increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food is good for the whole community. Madison is not immune to America’s health problems. We have obesity, hypertension, and diabetes here. By empowering people to take care of themselves, you give them the tools to succeed.”
For more information on the GWCFEC, visit http://www.gwcfec.org.