Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

Pipelines and Property Lines

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline wants to inspect land along a proposed 550-mile route. Legal challenges from landowners could re-write a 2004 law governing property rights in utility surveys.

by James A. Bacon

Charlotte Rea decided when she retired that she wanted to live near where she grew up near Charlottesville. She found “a little piece of heaven” in Nelson County: a 29-acre spread on the north fork of the Rockfish River. With her retirement savings, she purchased the land with the idea of keeping it undeveloped if things worked out but selling two lots if she needed the cash. “All of my money is in the land,” Rea says. “It’s my long-term care insurance.”

She never imagined that someone would want her land for industrial purposes. But her homestead, as it turns out, came to be situated on the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) linking the natural gas fields of West Virginia with markets in Virginia and North Carolina. The 125-foot pipeline right-of-way would cut a swath across the river and through forested wetlands on her property that host a species of rare orchid. An ag-forestal district designation restricts development and prohibits industrial uses, she says. “Except it appears Dominion can industrialize it by running a pipeline through it. My property  will become an underground natural gas storage site.”

Since announcing its original plans, ACP has redrawn its proposed route, leaving her property untouched. But Rea doesn’t consider the new route to be definitive, and she is little reassured. “My future is totally blown up, not knowing what’s happening to my property. No one wants to buy land with a natural gas pipeline going through the middle of the view shed. I stand to lose $50,000 in property value. I couldn’t sleep at night worrying about the darn thing coming through.” 

The 63-year-old career Air Force veteran decided to fight back, signing up as co-chair of the “All Pain No Gain” group opposing the pipeline. Not only does Rea not want to see the pipeline built, she objects to ACP or its contractors even coming onto private property to survey the land. And she is just one of dozens of landowners who view the pipeline the same way.

Dominion Transmission, ACP’s managing partner, filed suit this spring in local courts against more than 100 property in order to gain access to their land. Many, like Rea, were clustered near the Blue Ridge mountains in Augusta and Nelson Counties. A local judge ruled that the notice letters had been improperly issued by Dominion Transmission, so the pipeline company withdrew the pending cases and started re-filing lawsuits as ACP. As of early July, says Rea, she knew of 27 re-filed lawsuits. Meanwhile, pipeline foes have filed two of their own lawsuits in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the state law.

The lawsuits are shaping up as the Old Dominon’s biggest battle over property rights in years. The courts will be called upon to define the balance between landowners like Rea who wish to be left alone and utilities like the four corporate partners of the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline — including Virginia energy giant Dominion, Duke Energy, AGL Resources and Piedmont Natural Gas — who argue that there is a compelling public need to build more gas pipelines as electric utilities replace coal with gas in their fuel mix. The legal outcome could influence other pipeline projects as well. Three groups besides ACP have expressed possible interest in building pipelines from the West Virginia shale fields to markets in Virginia and points south.

Pipeline foes make two overarching arguments. First, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has not yet issued a certificate declaring the ACP project to be in the public interest, says Joe Lovett, an attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Because ACP cannot yet argue that the pipeline is for “public use,” it has no right to survey land without the consent of property owners.

Second, pipeline foes say, landowners deserve compensation for survey crews tramping over their property. The right to exclude others from entering your property “is one of the most important rights in the bundle of property rights,” says Josh Baker, an attorney with Waldo & Lyle, one of the preeminent landowner rights firms in Virginia. When multiple survey teams — ACP lists five different categories of crews — enter the property, they can cause considerable inconvenience. While the Virginia code allows for “actual damages” resulting from a survey, it allows nothing for inconvenience.

Dominion asserts that it is fully within its rights to conduct the surveys as long as it complies with requirements to request permission in writing to inspect the land and then provide a notice of intent to enter. Obtaining a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC is necessary to acquire land through eminent domain authority but not to survey land, says Jim Norvelle, director media relations for Dominion Energy. Surveys are governed by state law.

As for land surveys constituting a “taking,” there is plenty of legal precedent to support ACP’s position, Norvelle says. “We do not expect to damage anyone’s property when surveying. In the unlikely event there is some damage, we will reimburse the landowner.”

A half century ago, pipelines in Virginia were either intrastate pipelines under State Corporation Commission jurisdiction or they were segments of interstate pipelines built and “stitched together over time,” says Jim Kibler, who was active in eminent domain litigation in Virginia before joining Atlanta-based AGL Resources as senior vice president-external affairs. Local public utility commissions, including Virginia’s SCC, provided most regulatory oversight. Continue reading

Richmond Is Better with Bacon


It was 96° degrees in the shade yesterday at the 17th Street Farmer’s Market, but thousands of people showed up for the second annual Richmond Bacon Festival. With all those bacon lovers gathered in one place, I felt the love! Dozens of restaurants and confectioners had set up booths peddling bacon-flavored drinks, bacon-flavored candy and everything in between. Due to a tight schedule, I had time to sample only a small portion of the delicacies available, but every morcel I ate was delicious. The saying is true: Everything is better with bacon.

hot_baconThe pepper-bacon concoction pictured to the left was spicy and very tasty … but, I must say, a bit over-priced for $4. That translated into $1 per bite (or $.50 per nibble). While I do share the view that bacon is the main ingredient of the ambrosia of the gods, there are limits to how much I’m willing to pay even for ambrosia.

IMG_1057 The pork taco seen at right was more satisfying. Strictly speaking, pork is not bacon. But it’s close enough. This taco was delicious, and there was enough of it to stick to the ribs.

The best tasting confection (no photo, alas) might best be described as a gourmet hot pocket — crispy bacon and cheddar cheese baked inside a hardball-sized piece of bread with a slightly crusty exterior. Hmm hmm good.

Some people think of the hamburger as the quintessentially American food. To be sure, burgers are yummy but there’s not much room for subtlety or nuance in the preparation of a burger. By contrast, bacon lends itself to infinite experimentation. As the foodie culture continues its take-over of American cuisine, I expect to see ever more bacon-driven innovation. Three hundred and sixty-four days seems way too long to wait until the next festival!


New Film Documents Horrors of Coal Mining

blood on the moutain posterBy Peter Galuszka

Several years in the making, “Blood on the Mountain” has finally premiered in New York City. The documentary examines the cycle of exploitation of people and environment by West Virginia’s coal industry highlighting Massey Energy, a coal firm that was based in Richmond.

The final cut of the film was released publicly May 26 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the “Workers Unite! Film Festival” funded in part by the Fund for Creative Communities, the Manhattan Community Arts Fund and the New York State Council of the Arts.

Directed by Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman, the film shows that how for more than a century, coal companies and politicians kept coal workers laboring in unsafe conditions that killed thousands while ravaging the state’s mountain environment.

As Bruce Stanley, a lawyer from Mingo County, W.Va. who is interviewed in the film and has fought Donald L. Blankenship, the notorious former head of Massey Energy, says, there isn’t a “War on Coal,” it is a “war waged by coal on West Virginia.”

When hundreds of striking workers protested onerous and deadly working conditions in the early 1920s, they were met with machine guns and combat aircraft in a war that West Virginia officials kept out of history books. They didn’t teach it when I was in grade school there in the 1960s. I learned about the war in the 1990s.

The cycle of coal mine deaths,environmental disaster and regional poverty continues to this day. In 2010, safety cutbacks at a Massey Energy mine led to the deaths of 29 miners in the worst such disaster in 40 years. Mountains in Central Appalachia, including southwest Virginia, continue to be ravaged by extreme strip mining.

As Jeff Biggers said in a review of the movie in the Huffington Post:

“Thanks to its historical perspective, Blood on the Mountains keeps hope alive in the coalfields — and in the more defining mountains, the mountain state vs. the “extraction state” — and reminds viewers of the inspiring continuum of the extraordinary Blair Mountain miners’ uprising in 1921, the victory of Miners for Democracy leader Arnold Miller as the UMWA president in the 1970s, and today’s fearless campaigns against mountaintop-removal mining.”

The movie (here is the trailer) is a personal mission for me. In 2013, after my book “Thunder on the Mountain, Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal,” was published by St. Martin’s Press, Mari-Lynn Evans called me and said she liked the book and wanted me to work with her on the movie project. She is from a small town in West Virginia a little south of where I spent several years as a child and thought some of my observations in the book rang true.

I drove out to Beckley, W.Va. for several hours of on-camera interviews. Over the next two years, I watched early versions, gave my criticisms and ideas and acted as a kind of consultant. Mari-Lynn’s production company is in Akron and I visited other production facilities in New York near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Interesting work if you can get it. My only forays into film making before had been with my high school film club where he videographed a coffin being lowered into a grave (in West Virginia no less). I was greatly impressed when I saw the movie at its New York premiere.

Mari-Lynn and Jordan have been filming in the region for years. They collaborated on “The Appalachians,” an award-winning three-part documentary that was aired on PBS a few years ago and on “Coal Country” which dealt with mountaintop removal strip mining.

They and writer Phyllis Geller spent months detailing how coal companies bought up land on the cheap from unwitting residents, hired miners and other workers while intimidating them and abusing them, divided communities and plundered some very beautiful mountains.

Upper Big Branch is just a continuation of the mine disasters that have killed thousands. The worst was Monongah in 1907 with a death toll of at least 362; Eccles in 1914 with 183 dead; and Farmington in 1968 with 78 dead (just a county over from where I used to live).

By 2008 while Blankenship was CEO of Massey, some 52 miners were killed. Then came Upper Big Branch with 29 dead in 2010.

At least 700 were killed by silicosis in the 1930s after Union Carbine dug a tunnel at Hawks Nest. Many were buried in unmarked graves.

While state regulation has been lame, scores West Virginia politicians have been found guilty of taking bribes, including ex-Gov. Arch Moore.

The movie is strong stuff. I’ll let you know where it will be available. A new and expanded paperback version of my book is available from West Virginia University Press.

Blankenship is scheduled to go on trial on federal charges related to Upper Big Branch on July 13.

Fixing Food Deserts Won’t Fix Food Insecurity

by James A. Bacon

Speaking of food…food_desert there’s new research out on the differences in diet and nutrition between different socioeconomic groups. The conventional wisdom is that a major factor explaining the gap in nutritional quality between affluent and poor Americans is the difficulty poor people have in accessing fresher, healthier food — the food desert phenomenon.

Using new data sets unavailable to previous researchers, Jessie Handbury, Molly Schnell and Ilya Rahkovsky were able to hone in food-buying practices of poor and affluent shoppers in the same grocery store. They found that the same patterns prevailed  — affluent people buy healthier, more nutritious food than poor people do.

“Our results indicate that improving access to healthy foods alone will do little to close the gap in the nutritional quality of grocery purchases across different socioeconomic groups,” they write in “What Drives Nutritional Disparities? Retail Access and Food Purchases across the Socioeconomic Spectrum,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Improving the concentration and nutritional quality of stores in the average low-income and low-education neighborhood to match those of the average high-income and high-education neighborhood would only close the gap in nutritional consumption across these groups by 1-3%.”

The authors suggest that two other variables are at play: the price of food and consumer preferences for certain kinds of food over others. Their research did not indicate the relative importance of those factors played in influencing food purchases.

Bacon’s bottom line: Once food preferences are established, it is very difficult to change them. That’s not to say it can’t be done — If I learned to like brocolli and brussel sprouts, for cryin’ out loud, anybody can change their food preferences — but it is a long, slow process. The problem is compounded by the fact that the food preferred by the poor — loaded with salt, fat and sugar — is engineered to taste better than healthy foods. And it’s compounded yet again by the fact is that many Americans across the income spectrum have lost the cultural knowledge of how to cook healthy foods. Educated Americans acquire that knowledge by watching cooking channels, buying cook books, and exposing themselves to new foods at finer restaurants. Those options are less available to the poor.

Spending money to induce grocery stores to locate in food deserts and stock their shelves with nutritious food is a fool’s errand. Grocers won’t stock shelf space with food that no one buys. Conversely, if poor people (a) showed a strong preference for nutritious food and (b) could afford to buy it, grocers would need no prodding — they would supply what the customer demanded.

The lousy nutrition of America’s poor is a demand-side problem, not a supply-side problem. To change how America eats, the first order of business is to change what Americans want to eat and can afford to eat.

The Agribusiness Opportunity

Source: New Geography

Source: New Geography

by James A. Bacon

If prostitution is the “oldest profession,” farming is likely the second oldest. Humans have been farming for thousands of years and, if they want to continue to eat, they’ll be farming for thousands of years more. Young people don’t see much future in farming (unless it’s locally grown organic food), and small towns and rural areas in the United States continue to bleed population. But there’s an argument to be made that farming has a great future.

Agriculture is already one of the United States’ biggest export sectors, and overseas markets are likely to continue to grow as developing the world population increases and rising incomes increase food consumption. Those mega-trends portend a favorable environment for large-scale agribusiness capable of moving large volumes of food commodities. Meanwhile, the rise of the locally grown food movement will create opportunities for community gardens and artisinal producers serving local markets.

That future of agriculture may not look like today’s massively mechanized, resource-intensive farming industry. It will be more knowledge-intensive, utilizing insights from biology and ecology to grow crops with fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. It will be less labor intensive, as leaf and berry pickers replace unskilled migrant workers. As the nature of the business changes, farming could well rebound as a career path for the young. As Joel Kotkin and Mark Schill write in New Geography, “The farms of the future are increasingly high-tech and run by highly skilled professionals and technicians.”

As we think about how to revitalize the economy of rural/small town Virginia, we don’t give much thought to stimulating agricultural production. Perhaps we should.

On the surface, the data compiled by Kotkin and Schill seems none too encouraging for Virginia. They honed in on metropolitan regions with at least 5,000 total jobs falling into one of 68 ag- and food production-related industries, including crop and animal production. Only four Virginia metros made it onto the list (as seen above), and they ranked in the bottom half of the 124 regions listed.  But that’s OK. I see farming and agribusiness as relatively untapped opportunity — fields of opportunities ripe for entrepreneurial innovation.

Finally, Tobacco Commission Gets Reforms



By Peter Galuszka

Virginia’s infamous tobacco commission appears to be finally getting needed reforms 15 years after it went into existence.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced today that he was appointing a new executive director, Lynchburg native Evan Feinman, ordering a slimmed down board of directors and requiring a dollar-for-dollar match on grants the commission doles out to support community development in Virginia’s old tobacco belt.

In another break with the past, McAuliffe is renaming the old Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission as the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

That might sound cosmetic, but any change is welcome given the commission’s history.

Since its formation after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between 46 states and four large cigarette makers, the commission has been spending millions of dollars won from the tobacco firms supposedly to help tobacco growers in a region roughly following the North Carolina border wean themselves off of the golden leaf toward economic projects that are far healthier.

Instead, the commission has been racked by scandal after scandal, including the conviction of a former director, John W. Forbes II, for embezzling $4 million in public money. He is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.

The commission also figured in the corruption trial of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell since it was suggested my McDonnell as a possible source of funding for businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. during McDonnell’s trial for corruption. Williams, who was the star prosecution witness against McDonnell, got help from McDonnell in promoting one of his vitamin supplement products. McDonnell was convicted of 11 felonies and is now appealing.

The old commission also has been criticized by a major state audit for funding dubious projects and not keeping track of whether the money it has doled out has done much good. It had been criticized for acting as a slush fund for projects favored by Southside and southwestern Virginia politicians.

McAuliffe’s reforms include reducing the commission’s board from 31 to 28 members and requiring that 13 of them have experience in business, finance or education.

Feinman has been deputy secretary of natural resources and worked with McAuliffe’s post-election team.

It’s too soon, of course, to know if these changes will bring results, but anything that moves the commission away from its past and the grasp of mossback Tobacco Road politicians is welcome.

Adapting to Climate Change: 11 Proposals


Working under the direction of University of Richmond professors Peter D. Smallwood and Stephen P. Nash, eleven UR environmental studies majors wrote papers on topics relating to the environment and climate change in Virginia. Each paper defines a problem and lays out a practical solution. All eleven papers are compiled in a document entitled, “Nature Virginia’s Economy, and the Climate Threat.” The papers are of such interest that I re-publish the abstracts below. — JAB

Seed Banks: An Insurance Policy Against Extinction from Climate Change
by Casey Schmidt

Climate change is causing the ranges of native species to shift northward at a pace that outstrips the ability of many plant species to migrate and adapt. … Although assisted migration, the process of relocating individuals or spread of seeds through human intervention, has been used successfully in some cases to preserve species, it comes saddled with potential ecological damage, and legal complications arise when these ranges cross state lines.

These complications threaten Virginia’s biological diversity, especially among rare plants and those plants from habitats affected most by climate change. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of native species before populations become isolated and inbred, this paper proposes that Virginia create a seed bank. Seed banks have been used for a variety of reasons worldwide to preserve the genes of plant species, including the preservation of crop species and for research purposes. … For this proposed seed bank, Virginia would use information collected by the state Natural Heritage Program to identify eligible species that face the greatest threat from climate change in order to preserve biodiversity, establish a genetically diverse sample for research, and potentially reestablish these endangered species in the future.

Branching Out: How Virginia Can Use Trees Strategically to Combat Biodiversity Loss
by Taylor Pfeiffer

Biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase global temperatures, decreases in the abundance and diversity of species has reduced ecosystem resiliency during these changes. … Weakened ecosystems decrease the environment’s capacity to provide humans with services like safe drinking water, fuel, and protection from natural disasters. …

The agricultural industry plays a unique role in this environmental conversation, as farmland both contributes to climate change and is jeopardized by the negative effects created by the issue in a complex reciprocal cycle. This relationship, along with the presence of 8.3 million acres of farmland in Virginia, suggests that agriculture should be incorporated into the state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. …

Agroforestry, the strategic integration of trees in agriculture to create a sustainable land-use system, has been utilized for environmental benefits in the past. … This paper proposes the creation of a statewide program that requires the use of agroforestry on large farms in order to preserve biodiversity in the wake of climate change. An alternative solution is a certification program for farmers who use agroforestry practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Economic incentives and implementation assistance will encourage participation, while funding for the establishment of this program, creation of publications, and organization of events will be sourced from governmental and private grants.

Continue reading

Pulp and Circumstance in Chesterfield

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

By Peter Galuszka

Jim Bacon has a fascinating cover story about the future of Short Pump in the latest Henrico Monthly magazine.

Not to be outdone, I humbly point out that I have a cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister publication.

I explain how Chesterfield County, the state and other officials landed Shandong Tranlin, an advanced paper mill in the eastern part of Chesterfield. At $2 billion, it’s the biggest Chinese greenfield project ever planned in this country.

The story actually starts when Jerry Peng, a Chinese businessman who happened to go to the Darden School at the University of Virginia, went to the U.S. to look for a place for a new type of paper plant. After becoming frustrated looking on the U.S. West Coast, he plugged his Hoo connections in Virginia and “Project Cavalier” was born.

In less than two years, Virginia and Chesterfield landed the plum. It will employ 2,000 within a few years. It is a story about how county, state and private industry worked quickly and well together. The whirlwind of negotiations credits both former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and their staff.

The pulp mill is expected to be less polluting because it does not use trees for pulp but uses leftover farmfield waste such as wheat and corn stalk. There is little air pollution because most processes involve steam. There is no extremely toxic dioxin produced because there is no bleaching of paper product. Leftovers are then collected into a “black liquor” that supposedly can be used as a less polluting farm fertilizer which may be used by Virginia farmers that now use polluting fertilizers harmful to the Chesapeake Bay.

It just so happened that Chesterfield had all the right ingredients – proximity to farm field waste; ample highway and rail connections, a large, skilled workforce; deepwater access, lots of process water from the James River and plenty of locally-available power.

It’s is part of a switch in economic policy by the Middle Kingdom. After three decades of drawing in foreign investment, Beijing is now looking for advanced industrial countries. That is why a Chinese firm spent $4 billion to buy Smithfield Foods. Now, there’s Shandong Tranlin.

I do have my doubts about the much-touted environmental benefits of the project, having been to China and seen the enormous industrial pollution there. Air quality in Beijing or Shanghai is routinely many times the highest permissible levels in the West. But plenty of people seem to think that Shandong Tranlin is on to something.

Let’s hope so.

(Note: the Henrico and Chesterfield Monthly are doing some interesting new journalism in the area. Watch for them.)

Film Rips Climate Change Deniers

merchants-of-doubt-posterBy Peter Galuszka

A just-released documentary “Merchants of Doubt” seems tailor-made for the readers of Bacons Rebellion.

The film by Robert Kenner explores the profession of doubting climate change in which the energy industry quietly hires “scientists” to debunk the idea that carbon dioxide emissions are creating global warming that could have catastrophic consequences.

The strategy of confronting scientific evidence that is damaging to a particular industry has been around since at least the 1960s when the chemical industry tried to dismiss the idea that the insecticide DDT widely used to control mosquitoes could be deadly to wildlife for decades.

Big Tobacco took the concept to entirely new levels when scientific studies in the 1960s linked tobacco smoking to addictive nicotine, cancer and other bad things. Cigarette makers hauled out their own supposedly independent but payrolled “scientists” to raise doubt about the claims before congressional committees and to the general public.

The tobacco industry snowballed their phony science into yet another sphere. There had been complaints that people were being killed when they fell asleep on furniture while holding smoldering cigarettes.

The cigarette makers could have put in fire retardants in the smokes but they thought it would be too costly. So, they set up a scenario where furniture makers would load up sofas and chairs with fire retardants, which, unfortunately, proved carcinogenic or otherwise harmful. Then, of course, the chemical industry found its own “scientists” to claim the flame retardants they put in furniture were safe.

According to review so the film which I haven’t seen (it was just released March 6), Big Energy is using the very same tactics with help from the Koch Brothers and their network of paid think tanks (such as the “Heartland Institute”) to debunk the link between carbon and climate change. You may see some of those ideas popping up on this blog from time to time.

Kenner has won awards for such documentaries as “Food, Inc.” His latest film is based on a 2011 book with the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. According to a review in The Washington Post, “What’s disheartening about “Merchants of Death” is that the strategy still works so effectively in a hyper-partisan, intellectually lazy, spin-addicted 24-7 news cycle.”

Can anyone guess which news channel fits the bill?

Are Do-Gooders Making Food Insecurity Worse?

by  James A. Bacon

Food deserts are back in the news here in Richmond with the premier of a documentary, “Living in a Food Desert,” at the Richmond International Film Festival. First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who has made food security her signature cause, attended the screening and addressed the audience. More than 300,000 Virginia children are food insecure, she said. “There needs to be a forceful call to action.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams picked up on the remarks in a column today. Mrs. McAuliffe, he wrote, “called it ironic that a state whose $70 billion agriculture industry feeds folks around the world is not reaching its neediest citizens.”

Yes, it is ironic indeed. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite an expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) to more people than ever in the program’s history. It is ironic that food insecurity exists despite the existence of school lunch and school breakfast programs for disadvantaged children. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the efforts of groups like Tricycle Gardens to encourage inner-city Richmond residents to raise their own food. It is ironic that food insecurity persists despite the mobilization of the not-for-profit community through food banks, food pantries and church food drives in an unprecedented giving away of free food and free meals. It is ironic that Richmond’s Feedmore food bank has originated as an institution that provided food for emergency situations into one that fills chronic, ongoing needs. Food insecurity, one Feedmore official told me two years ago for an article I never completed, was becoming “the new normal.”

Everyone quoted by Williams laments the terrible state of affairs. And let me just say, before being condemned as a heartless, evil  conservative, that it is a terrible thing for children to go hungry. But when food insecurity evolves from a sometime thing to a permanent state affairs — and seven years after the Great Recession, it’s getting a little hard to continue blaming the economic downturn — it makes me wonder if we’re doing something wrong.

Here’s my question: How, despite the funneling of unprecedented government and philanthropic dollars to the feeding of the poor, has food insecurity has gotten worse? There are clues in Williams’ column.

A recurrent theme Sunday was that this issue represents an opportunity for folks to take charge of their lives by developing socially conscious economies around food.

It is important for any solution around food deserts to not be paternalistic in the sense that you just come in an drop food off and you’re gone,” Duron Chavis, project director of [Virginia State University’s] Indoor Farm, says in the documentary.

“The key word there is empowerment,” said panelist John Lewis, director of Renew Richmond. “We have the opportunity to empower communities that live in food deserts, especially low-income individuals, to take their food system back.”

Now, couple those comments with this: “As disciples of the Lord, we are commanded to feed the hungry. And we take that commandment seriously,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael A. Sanders of Mount Olive Baptist Church. “We have quickly become one of the largest food pantries in the city of Richmond.”

To what extent does the commandment “to feed the hungry” conflict with the imperative to “empower” the poor? Does society’s impulse to feed the poor result in behaviors that are the opposite of empowering? Why don’t poor people grow their own garden plots? Why don’t they organize community gardens? There are plenty of vacant plots of land in the East End of Richmond, the city’s biggest food desert. There are plenty of groups, like Tricycle Gardens, that are willing to provide the know-how. Why isn’t it happening? Is it possible that the more outsiders take on the obligation to feed Virginia’s poor, from Richmond’s East End to Appalachia, the less they do for themselves?

Are our charitable impulses making worse the very problem we decry? That’s the one question no one seems to be asking.