McDowell County, West Virginia

By: Rayla Claypool, Jazmine Hawes, Alison Kaiser, Aishina Shaffer

Wealth, prosperity and security are not terms that describe McDowell County, W.Va. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, McDowell’s unemployment rate is 12.9 percent — four times the national average.

Wealth, prosperity and security are not terms that describe McDowell County, W.Va. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, McDowell’s unemployment rate is 12.9 percent — four times the national average.

The county is nestled in the southern West Virginia mountains, where the roads are curvy and narrow, and cell service is limited. Food access in McDowell is low, and many of the county’s residents struggle to stay fed, let alone access healthy options.

 

The area’s remoteness and steady , can often make it difficult for some from day to day. Most of McDowell County was built around coal mines; towns like Welch and Kimball used to have booming economies with jobs and industry based in coal mining.

However, mines have been shutting down over the last decade, forcing a lot of people the leave the area. In 2015, there were 35 mines in McDowell. Only 13 remained in January 2016. Linda McKinney also noticed how the mine closures affected the county’s population. “We can blame it on the mines, because that was our major industry here.”

Linda serves as director of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.Va. The food bank has moved enough food to supplement the needs of roughly half of McDowell’s population of 22,113.

Backpack programs help feed local children over the summer. Baby clothing is available for new parents who don’t have enough. Hygiene products that may be difficult to get ahold of are even kept at the food bank.

Despite the decline and the hardship, the people of McDowell haven’t given up. And, as Linda says, the community is close-knit. “You never meet a stranger — very rarely — in McDowell County,” she says.

Linda’s son, Joel, wants to see change that will help bring life back into the county.

Joel McKinney stands outside of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank on Nov. 4, 2016. He left McDowell at 18 and thought he’d never return. The food bank is owned and operated by his parents, and after many years of working for a railroad company, Joel soon began to hear the West Virginia hills calling him home. And although those hills make farming in West Virginia difficult, he saw an opportunity in the midst of a struggling region. Joel looked around McDowell and thought, “if there’s nothing here, I’ll create it.” He had work to do, and people to feed through an emerging method in agriculture: hydroponic gardening.

Hydroponic gardening is growing plants in water without soil. The years of coal and strip mining have taken a toll on the natural wealth in the ground around McDowell , so Joel figured out how to grow above ground.

 

Joel’s hydroponic towers grow different varieties of lettuce outside the food bank. Hydroponics allows crops to grow in areas unsuitable for farming by using pumps to supply plants with the water and nutrients they need to survive.

Unfortunately, the hydroponic project hasn’t gained traction in the state government. Joel sought state grant funding to help expand his operation, but he hasn’t received any government money. “They haven’t given us a penny since he’s nontraditional … he’s not in-ground.” However, the people of the area believe in his efforts, and he recently held a successful GoFundMe campaign.

Joel did what he could to supply the school system’s demand for healthy foods. He believes there is hope for the county, and that the end of coal isn’t the end of McDowell. “Eventually this place can be turned around, it’s just going to take time.”

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