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WVU supply chain students tackle global problem of low access to food beginning with project in West Virginia

When you combine West Virginia’s rural disbursement of residents with its less-than-affluent, average demographic, the present day result is that the state has become a desert. That is, a “food desert,” where a large percentage of the state’s population resides significant distances from supermarkets and reliable food sources.

Global supply chain students with project

A group of West Virginia University supply chain students at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics has struck a partnership with the Grow Ohio Valley organization in Wheeling, West Virginia, on a project aimed at reducing food deserts. That project, as it turns out, may not only help with West Virginia’s food access problem, but may also address the problem on a global scale. 

Through the partnership, a group of 44 supply chain students from the Supply Chain Technology course at WVU is helping Grow Ohio Valley get food — healthy and affordable food — into the hands of those who want and need it. That is valuable experience for college students, since the very concept of supply chain is delivering goods and services into the hands of those who want them as efficiently as possible. Senior global supply chain management major Rena Kobelak said the project has not only yielded new ways to help eliminate food deserts, but has provided real-world experiences for students that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. 

“Grow Ohio Valley is an advocate for local food production and distribution that supports food programs in the Ohio Valley region and aims to reduce food deserts in the Wheeling area,” said Kobelak, a native of Pittsburgh just outside of Wheeling. “This semester, the Supply Chain Management Technology class worked with GOV to support its mission to build thriving communities through local food. With GOV’s newest retail outlet, the Public Market, opening in May 2019, we worked to build out their materials handling, production processes, demand management, retail offerings at the public market and the information management system from field to fork.”

The business students are working to help GOV make the Public Market, to be located in the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Terminal in downtown Wheeling, a huge success next year when it opens. Holly Leister, a senior supply chain major from Montgomery, Pennsylvania, said that GOV is growing the number of local food producers, as well as providing fresh food to Wheeling area residents. 

“We’ve done the research and we are applying principles we’ve learned in Dr. (John) Saldanha’s class, including understanding what customers want,” Leister said. “Customers want the 7 Rs: the right product at the right place at the right price for the right customer in the right condition at the right time in the right quantity. GOV asked us for help on its supply chain system, which ultimately gets food from those who produce it to those who want it.”

This project addresses all of WVU’s three pillars of education, health and prosperity, as well as advancing the West Virginia Forward initiative, the collaborative initiative with the West Virginia Department of Commerce and Marshall University to help propel the state into a strong economic future – which includes a healthy workforce. 

Grow Ohio Valley was founded in Wheeling in 2014, and has completed the conversion of two acres of abandoned urban land into diversified vegetable farms and an additional 3.5 acres in production at a rural farm site. In 2017, GOV also planted a 3.5-acre orchard in collaboration with the Wheeling Housing Authority. 

“The WVU (Global) Supply Chain Management students have made real-time contributions to Grow Ohio Valley’s new initiatives, including the upcoming launch of the Public Market — a farmer-first local and natural foods store opening in a food desert in downtown Wheeling,” said Eleanor Marshall, GOV’s special projects director. “Their in-depth analysis of current systems and work to optimize our business practices helps Grow Ohio Valley to be more effective in serving our vision to achieve regional food security. We are very impressed with the quality of the students’ work and grateful for their lasting contribution to our organization.”

Leister added that the GOV project will go far beyond fruits and vegetables, providing value-added products like frozen foods and healthy choices for working families and people with busy home schedules.

“In developing its current sourcing, growing and production management operations, GOV can continue to grow its mission,” she said. “WVU, the John Chambers College of Business and Economics and the global supply chain program have a memorandum of understanding to work with GOV to extend this work to all other food deserts in the region.”

According to U.S. hunger relief organization Feeding America, 267,280 West Virginians, including 75,970 children, are “food insecure,” meaning that they do not know where or when they will get their next meal. The collaborative effort at the John Chambers College of Business and Economics is among a number of projects originating at WVU to reduce food insecurity.

This phase of the collaborative effort culminated with a luncheon, presentations and networking reception on December 7 at the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place. Presentations were delivered by all six student working groups, including tools they created: an actual 3-D model of the marketplace floor plan to aid in product placement, informational staffing videos about the GOV market and a produce-cooling prototype that will increase shelf life of fresh products.

Students emphasized that the project represents something good, in a number of ways.

“This is a victory all the way around,” Kobelak said. “Wheeling area residents get fresh, healthy, affordable food. People who don’t have a convenient place to shop for good food will have one. And, this is a perfect example of experiential learning. We are working on addressing a social challenge. It’s not a nice clean situation wrapped up in a box for us to solve. We had to do research and really work hard on how to help make GOV’s efforts successful. This wasn’t easy, but it has been a really gratifying, real-world opportunity for all six groups of students.” 

Leister added, “One of the most rewarding parts is that everyone in the class got to choose the part of the project that interested them most. It’s learning we have created for ourselves with the help of Dr. Saldanha.”

“This was a great opportunity to put all of these supply chain processes together,” Saldanha said. “At our business school, we believe that, in order to remain relevant, we owe these students opportunities to apply what they learn in a real-world environment. And this is a project for the greater good because it is addressing a real-world problem of food insecurity in West Virginia.”