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Appalachian Food Justice Institute: Olivia McConnell

Picture of Olivia McConnell

Text by Amanda Marple, Photo by Raymond Thompson Jr

Olivia McConnell (she, her) is a Morgantown native and currently an AmeriCorps Vista with Hunger-Free Communities Initiative at the Alliance to End Hunger based in Washington, D.C. Olivia participated in the first Appalachian Food Justice Institute in 2019; a 10-day intensive fellowship focused on social, economic, and food justice in the state of West Virginia. Olivia was one of 14 Fellows, selected from an application pool of over 35. We interviewed Olivia in 2020 to learn more about her experience and how the 2019 Appalachian Food Justice Institute impacted her life.

Q: Why did you apply for the Appalachian food justice Institute?

A: I thought it would be a really new way to look at things that I had been interested in and studied in the past. So I had been a geography student. I graduated from the Geography Program here at West Virginia University and I focused a lot on food and human geography.

It's something that I was interested in academically, but it was also just something I was personally vested in. You know, I had worked for the farmers market. And I was working for the Board of Directors for Conscious Harvest Cooperative, a local food cooperative in Morgantown. So it's something that I just like was personally interested in, but also had a little bit of experience from my education.

Q: What are three highlights from your experience?

A: Three highlights. That's hard to like put it down to. I think the first highlight was really just meeting everyone. It was so nice to be surrounded by lots of young people who were interested in similar things, but came from such diverse backgrounds. It was really nice to just meet people, working and studying things that I had always been interested in. So that's my number one first highlight.

The second highlight for me was definitely going on the trips and traveling, getting to experience all of these places that are in my home state, but I hadn't necessarily ever been to, or hadn't really seen in the way that I saw. And just having that immersive experience of like being there with everyone and being really incredibly involved and immersed in the program for that week. And I mean, like the third highlight, food, we got to eat incredible food all week. So that was really nice too.

Q: What was the most memorable moment of your participation?

A: I guess my most memorable moment would probably be a series of moments, actually, it would just be the moments that I had having side conversations and talking to people, having real conversations, like not in an academic aspect, not in an academic setting, just like having real conversations with people about their lives and their experiences and sharing their stories and getting to learn from them in kind of a non-traditional way.

Q: What was your most aha learning moment?

A: I think the biggest aha moment for me was going to Cafe Appalachia and Kisra, and kind of just seeing this incredible experience of, particularly, service industry workers. I have been a service industry worker for most of my life working in bars and restaurants. And I know that it can be a particularly triggering environment for people, especially living in active addiction or living in active recovery and seeing a place like Cafe Appalachia that is a totally sober environment, but still is a place where you can use all the skills that you've learned working in the service industry.

That was like such an aha moment for me to see like, Oh wow. There's a model for this, like, this is such a tremendous model and it's a model that allows for people to continue working and honing the skills that they already have, but in a totally different environment and a safer environment and a healthier environment..

Q: How has your experience with the Appalachian food justice Institute impacted your life? And are you still working in a food justice field?

A: So participating in the Appalachian Food Justice Institute has impacted my life in so many ways. It's made me far more prepared for the position that I'm in right now as an AmeriCorps Vista with the Hunger-Free communities initiative at the Alliance to End Hunger.

I do less hands-on work. I do a lot of data collection and I do a lot of information sharing. I don't feel like I'm doing food justice work most of the time. But then when I actually look at the long-term of what I've been doing and the programs I've been working with the coalitions that are part of our network, I realize that I’m involved with organizations doing incredible food justice work. And so being able to help them build capacity and share knowledge and just facilitate engagement amongst them, I think is participating in food justice, just in kind of a hands-off role. So it's impacted my life in so many ways.

I made friends that I've continued to stay close with. That's been wonderful, but I think it also just gave me new perspectives on how food justice can look, what that can look like in everyday situations, what it can look like as a job, what it can look like in terms of education and studying.

It's also kind of just made me reconsider a lot of perspectives that I had. I think going into it as someone from Appalachia, I definitely had my own stereotypes and biases about Appalachia and what Appalachian people are like. Iit was important to confront those biases. Being from the area, I believe that it made a huge impact on me.

Q: Do you think that participating in the Institute gave you a different framework to use in your current job?

A: Definitely. I'm incredibly lucky that the program that I'm working with - we have a huge commitment to racial equity. And, we try to look at these problems through lenses that I think a lot of other organizations that are primarily focused on health don't necessarily consider. So I think that it made me better prepared to come into the position that I have right now..

Q: Would you recommend the Appalachian food justice Institute to others?

A: Yeah, I would definitely.

I think anyone that is interested in food justice or food education or anyone that eats food frankly, I think would really benefit from it. It was a really immersive experience in so many ways and in a way that you're not going to get out of a traditional semester long course or by yourself just reading books..

I think I got so much more out of it being able to use the materials we were given and discussing it with others and having kind of an outlet for where to project my opinions on those things. And then how to listen to other's opinions and kind of just synthesize all the information that I got.

So I, yeah, I think anyone would benefit from it, both people from Appalachia and people from outside of the region.

Q: What does food justice mean?

A: That's such a big question. I think, to me, food justice is just the idea that everyone has their own perspectives and their own cultural influence, and that food justice is this idea of applying equity to food so that people have the opportunity to interact with food in a way that is safe and healthy, but it's also culturally appropriate and is cognizant of the geography of where we are or how we were brought up.

And so food justice to me is - It's a huge concept. It covers food access and being able to eat food, but it also covers connecting with food and being able to have a relationship with food that I think so many people don't get to enjoy growing up.

I'm incredibly lucky. I feel like I've gotten to experience a relationship with food my whole life through my family, through growing food and cooking food. And that experience, to me, is very unique. And I think food justice implies giving everyone the opportunity to interact with food in a way that's not just eating what's on your plate and it's bringing everyone to the table.