Where There is Hunger

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

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No one is immune to a bad month, six months or even a bad year.

That’s the mentality of Deb Layman, case manager at the Scott’s Run Settlement House in Osage, W.Va. The Settlement House is a resource for Monongalia County residents in need of food, baby products, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items.

Hunger is not uncommon in West Virginia, where, according to the state’s Center on Budget and Policy, the poverty rate is 18.5 percent — 3.3 percent higher than the national average.

Hungry, however, does not always mean impoverished. According to Layman, people who aren’t living in poverty can still be hungry.

“We’ve had people with relatively good incomes — incomes that I’d envy — that have come (to the Settlement House),” she said. “The wife of the couple had cancer. The husband was taking her back and forth to chemo, and their transmission blew. Okay, cancer is expensive enough; transmissions are expensive enough. Combine the two, and any couple is going to be hurting.”

The couple put their car in the shop and took cabs back and forth between chemotherapy sessions. Shortly after their car was fixed, the transmission blew again.

“They’ve got a really good income, but they have really bad luck,” Layman said. “It’s not her fault that she got cancer; it’s not their fault the transmission blew.”

“They needed food, we gave them food.”

But families like this aren’t always welcomed into food pantries with open arms. Some food pantries have an income limit for applicants. In many cases, if the family isn’t approved to receive SNAP benefits, they are also likely to sit above their local food pantry’s income limit.

Although the Settlement House has an income limit for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities, it also purchases food to supplement those commodities and make this extra food available to anyone regardless of income.

“There’s not a point where we’re going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t be hungry, you make too much money,’” Layman said.

Food pantries aren’t always known for variety, but when you’re hungry, you take what you can get.

Families on SNAP must stretch their dollars throughout the month. According to the USDA, the national maximum monthly allotment of benefits that a family of four can receive is $649, roughly $162 per person. However, many families receive much less. In Mongolia County, West Virginia for example, the average SNAP allocation per household is $260,.

Stretching SNAP dollars to make it through the month can often lead to recipients purchasing foods that are high calorie and low in nutrition. Pre-packaged meals and frozen dinners can be more affordable than fresh produce or good quality meats.

Visitors can pick from a basket of snacks when they visit the Scott’s Run Settlement House. Photo by Aishina Shaffer.

Jerica Herrera, originally from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, says that Morgantown’s food options are very different than on the island she hails from. In St. Croix, she explains, fresh fruits and vegetables are a staple available for everyone, and there is a lot of variety.

However, Herrera says that she has been underwhelmed with many grocery store offerings in small-town America.

“I feel like … all of the microwavable foods (are) like fast food … I think they are unhealthy, to be honest with you. (I) try to stay away from it as much as I can. That’s not something that we love (to eat).”

Food pantries have a similar problem. Food donations often result in a lack of variety and fresh, healthy items. Instead, rows of cans with high sodium content and boxes of bleached flour products line the shelves.

Giving options to people struggling with food insecurity can make their trip to the food pantry seem less restrictive and make them feel more in control. Layman says that there are a lot of challenges involved in providing variety at food pantries, but she tries her best to ensure that her customers get something healthy and receive different items with each visit.

Layman, who received USDA commodities growing up, knows the effects of eating the same thing day-in and day-out.

“I know I ate spaghetti a lot enough as a child — I won’t eat it now. So, I don’t want to have a part in the next generation of kids that won’t eat spaghetti.”

Food insecurity is a challenge that’s made up of a lot of smaller challenges. In addition to the lack of variety or healthy options, getting food from a food pantry poses emotional difficulties. Asking for help from strangers or friends is never easy, but for some, it isn’t forever.

Layman remembers a woman who used to get food from the Scott’s Run Settlement House food pantry.

“When I first met her, her and her children were living in their car,” Layman said. “And I saw her get a house, get a job, and I just looked at her, and it’s like wow…you are not the same person that you were nine months ago.”

Food pantries like the Scott’s Run Settlement House act like a bridge. It’s a way to help food insecure individuals get to food security, so they don’t have to ask for help.

The greatest gift a food pantry can give is the ability for people to become to self-sufficient, but for some families, emergency food services aren’t temporary. Although some get to a point where they can stand on their own, that isn’t the case for others who use it as a regular part of their food sourcing strategy. The use of emergency food services like food pantries are on the rise and some people have been going to them for several years.

West Virginia’s Working Poor

By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Madalyn LaMastro, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Manna Meal, a “no questions asked” soup kitchen in Charleston, W.Va., opens its doors to all area citizens in need.

Manna Meal serves breakfast and lunch everyday. Breakfast is served from 8 to 9 a.m. Monday through Sunday, while lunch is served 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12:30 to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

According to Kay Albright, outreach coordinator at Manna Meal, the soup kitchen’s visitors come from many different backgrounds and walks of life.

“Our homeless population is a lot less, and our working poor are a lot more.”

While it is a common misunderstanding that many welfare recipients in the United States are “lazy” or “cheating the system,” that is far from the truth. In fact, the Center on Budget Policy Priorities reports 80 percent of current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients in the U.S. are working or will work within a year. Many employed people find that they need assistance from the government despite their steady incomes. And many of them also rely on charitable groups, soup kitchens and food pantries.

In 2013 the majority of households receiving SNAP had at least one individual who worked within the previous 12 months. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Some individuals stop by Manna Meal for breakfast or lunch before heading out for their own job searches. Ron Keeling, 57, of Charleston, W.Va., spends his week working part time as a seasonal associate at Macy’s. After his shift, he goes to bed at the Roark-Sullivan Lifeway Center, a temporary shelter for homeless men in the Charleston area. He visits Manna Meal for food when he needs it.

On Nov. 4, Keeling finished his bowl of off-brand Honey Nut Cheerios at breakfast, surrounded by some of his fellow shelter-mates. That day he planned on visiting WorkForce West Virginia, an agency with employment resources for citizens.

“You know, I lived in middle class almost my entire life, except for this last five or six months when I lost my job and wasn’t able to pay rent” Keeling said.

He was surprised by the people he met in the shelters. Just as he had come from a stable life, he found that others had also come from working backgrounds.

“It’s been kind of eye-opening because there are several people in these homeless shelters that you would never think should be there,” Keeling said. “They’re smart, they’re well-read, they’re intelligent…you wonder ‘Why are you here?’”

Keeling grew up as an only child in a middle class family. His father was an accountant and managed money well; his parents paid off a 20-year mortgage in three years. When his father passed away in 1991, Keeling was working in a print shop.

Unfortunately, almost two decades later his mother passed away and a couple of his business investments went south, including stock value in investments he made before the 2008 recession. In 2012, Keeling was evicted from his home, and he found himself in unfamiliar territory. He was able to live with some friends until this past summer.

Since June 2016, Keeling has been without a permanent place to live.

“It’s been far, far longer than I expected,” he said.

Unlike some individuals suffering from homelessness, Keeling didn’t know poverty until he fell into it himself. Keeling said some people he met had been homeless their entire lives. But when it comes to the majority of the population that is able to support themselves, Keeling said poverty is something many don’t understand or actively try to remain informed about.

“I would say probably the vast majority of people don’t think much about it until it shows up as an article on the news or you know, something happens to somebody close to them that they know,” Keeling said. “And I will say that for those of us who have never been there, it’s much different than for people who have either grown up that way or have been part of that for a long time, because they know where to go, you know, as far as the shelter was concerned. I had to find that information.”

Keeling is not alone as a homeless, employed American. Darrelll Draper, 46, works full-time as a chef at the Charleston Marriott. Tim Farwell, 58, delivers papers for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Former boxer Greg “The Juice” Johnson is a U.S. veteran. Although he has benefits, he barely scrapes by, making just enough to survive.

According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, roughly 45 percent of all homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4 percent and 3.4 percent of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.

For Johnson, saving money is important to sustain a decent living. He is homeless and receives $600 a month from Social Security, which is his only source of income.

“That little $600 a month, I don’t give it to no renter. I stay outside,” Johnson said. “I spend it on what I want to spend it on, I got friends that I stay with, and they get mad when I run out of money. ‘Greg, you got to go!’ Well it ain’t the first time, I got other friends,” Johnson said.

Individuals receiving benefits find different ways to apply this aid to their lives. When asked about some of the preconceived notions about hunger, homelessness and government benefits,, Keeling says it’s about focusing on oneself.

“I could let it make me mad … I could let it do a lot of things, but that’s just self-defeating. You know what you have to do? You know you have to buckle down, you know, you have to get back to work,” Keeling said.

“You do have to learn to take care of your emotions so they don’t take care of you. That doesn’t mean you don’t have them, that just means, you know, I can’t afford to let myself to just sit around and pout and be mad. That’s not gonna get me anywhere.”

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.”

One Man’s Positive Impact on a Food Insecure West Virginia Community

By: Ariel Craig, Lauren Caccamo, Minying Kong, Mostafa Hashem, Savannah Ashworth, Theresa Beverly

GRAFTON, W.Va. — In 2012, Bryan Smith was immobilized after being struck by a car. While the life-altering experience left him physically handicapped, it was what drove him to help his community in Taylor County, W.Va., combat food insecurity and health issues.

“A lot of people were going to different food pantries, and some of the smaller food pantries would end up running out of food toward the end of the months,” said Smith. “So the idea came that we needed a food pantry to collaborate.”

This idea led to Project HOP2E’s mobile food pantry, which is designed to help anyone who doesn’t have access to transportation.

“It could be senior citizens or anybody without a vehicle or even anybody who’s hospitalized,” said Smith. “We go out there and make sure these people have something to eat.”

When Smith began working with Project HOP2E, the first thing he did was trash the available junk food in the pantry and implement a focus on healthy eating. A key feature of this focus is the organization’s garden, which has produced approximately 35,000 pounds of food this year.

“Our garden grew from 5,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet this year,” said Smith. “I just know that we’ve been getting a lot of food out of it.”

Project HOP2E receives much of its food supply from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but also receives donations from large grocery stores, like Walmart and Shop-n-Save.

In addition to the mobile food pantry and garden, the organization contributes to Taylor County’s “backpack program,” which provides weekend supplies of food to school children from low-income families. From 2015 to 2016, the number of students receiving food from the backpack program has increased from 90 to 700.

“They come to us when they need to order from the food bank, so we help them with that,” said Smith regarding the area’s school staff. “I guess they’re having some issues with the kids not wanting to take their backpacks home because some of those kids are so hungry that they’ll just open it right there and start eating. A lot of time the only food they’ll get is what they get at school or in those backpacks.”

Project HOP2E also has initiatives that have proven beneficial to the Taylor County community. In 2015, for example, the “New Year, New You” weight loss challenge encouraged families to eat healthy foods. One 9-year-old participant entered the initiative with a negative mindset about eating healthy but now encourages his mom to shop for healthy foods and hopes to become a physical fitness trainer someday, Smith said. Smith’s main objective is to prevent individuals from becoming overweight like him, and plans on expanding the “New Year, New You” weight loss challenge this year.

“Last year we had 146 people sign up for that competition, and they collectively lost 1,987 pounds,” said Smith.

Smith says that by this year, he has been able to get six counties involved in the competition. The money that a county raises will then go to the food pantries within that county.

According to Smith, many individuals who need help from Project HOP2E feel ashamed and let pride and embarrassment stand in the way of receiving healthy food supplies. However, Smith’s encounter in the automobile that immobilized him is an experience that drives him to assist his clients.

“When I was run over, I could barely walk or get up or do anything, and it was embarrassing having to ask people to help me, so I can only imagine what it must be like to have to ask for help getting food,” said Smith. “I think a lot of times when they come to the food pantries you have to let them know you truly care and are there to help them while encouraging them to try different things.”

For Smith, the best part about Project HOP2E is giving back to his community and providing the necessary means to prevent health problems caused by being overweight.

“I don’t want to see a lot of people go through the same problems I’ve had being overweight, so my favorite thing about this job is helping people,” said Smith. “I want to help people in any way I can…I believe that if we all work together we could make this world a better place.”

What’s For Dinner? Morgantown Residents Discuss How They Access Food

By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While Morgantown is home to the largest university in West Virginia, it also contains a multitude of lesser-known, hidden gems.

The Community Kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church on Willey Street serves approximately 60 to 95 hungry people five days a week. With the help of donations and volunteers, Mary Yacco, the kitchen manager, not only provides hot meals to the Morgantown community Monday through Friday, but her services go far beyond the food.

Yacco forms friendships with many of the people who attend her kitchen over the course of time. One woman in particular is Tania, a Monongalia County native who just returned home after five years living in the deep South. (Tania declined to provide her last name due to privacy reasons).

“I’m at the kitchen every day. As long as they are open, I’m here,” says Tania. “Mary is a sweet, sweet lady. She does not tolerate a lot of ignorance or rudeness. All and all, everything has been pretty good here. I’m glad to be home.”

Even though Tania only spends about five hours at the kitchen a week, it has a huge impact on her life.

“You have to have a good attitude. We would be really lost without places like this. It might only be an hour out of the 24-hour day, but you get in, you sit down,get something to eat, something to drink, talk to some people. It helps, because when you are having a bad day and you’re hungry and tired, and all you want is something to eat, well, here you go. You got it,” says Tania.

In addition to the mood-boosting power of the people at the kitchen, Tania is also grateful for everything that happens behind the scenes.

“The local grocery stores are so great about helping out. A lot of people donate to the kitchen. It’s a big project to keep this stuff running, and it takes a lot of people to make it happen, but they always do it,” says Tania.

Making ends meet in West Virginia

While Tania has just recently started taking advantage of the kitchen’s program, others have been coming for years. Among the common community kitchen attendees is another Monongalia County resident, Greg Gallagher.

“I start(ed) coming here mid- to late-80s,” says Gallagher. “I was working for the Dominion Post at the time, and the hours were cut, so I had to supplement my food income, so that’s when I started coming here. I enjoy coming here a lot. People are friendly; food is good; it has a good social aspect, too.”

Gallagher is a self-employed author but does not qualify for SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits due to his income being too high for the program. Maximum income must be below $15,444 for a household of one in West Virginia.

He relies on the various Morgantown feeding programs. Morgantown has a wide variety of food charities that allows people of all types to access food. Gallagher is a believer in these food programs, as they can help everyone. Besides regular attendance to the community kitchen, Gallagher also visits University Avenue’s Salvation Army, Potter’s Cellar and more.

“It’s just that Morgantown really needs these feeding programs,” says Gallagher. “You got a lot of people who are working but don’t make a lot of money, and you got students that are away from home for the first time, this helps them too.”

Farming and finding healthy options

For those who access food on their own, there are options aplenty in Morgantown. Aldi, a discount grocer, is just outside of downtown Morgantown. An Aldi shopper’s main priorities are affordability and simplicity.

Although unfamiliar with the plight of food insecurity, Morgantown resident Charles Strahin still chooses his food sources carefully, with price and nutrition value in mind.

Strahin started shopping at the Aldi in Morgantown when it opened over a decade ago. Its location is on his way home from work, and the store’s fruit prices keep him coming back.

Even when Strahin decided to try to lose weight one year ago, he continued shopping at his usual spot. He said he has continued to find healthy options for his improved diet at Aldi.

“Mostly, I don’t do any sweets, and I eat all-natural foods if I can,” Strahin said. “I like to make sure, if I can find stuff that’s organically grown, I do that more often.”

Although he is a fan of Aldi’s deals, Strahin’s sources the majority of his food based on the best sales in town. At a given time, certain store locations have better prices than others, and Strahin finds affordability and nutritional value to be of the utmost importance when purchasing food.

SNAP benefits: differing perspectives

Grocery shopping on her way home from work, Fairmont resident Mary, who did not want to give her last name, says she has shopped at Aldi grocery store since 2007. Loading her bags into the trunk of her car on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in September 2016, she says the main reason she shops there are the prices and the quality of the products.

“It’s kind of on the way home, so it’s convenient as far as that goes. And it’s small, you can get in and get out,’’ Mary says.

Mary says she buys food when it goes on sale at Kroger or can’t find it elsewhere, adding that ‘’Walmart is a last resort.”

She uses her own salary to purchase food and satisfies most of her food needs at grocery stores, but she also has a big garden where she grows food herself.

“I grow tomatoes, so I do tomato juice, tomato sauce, stew tomatoes, salsa, green beans, and we have all kinds of squash, grape and red berries,’’ Mary adds.

But even though various people of socio-economic status rely on SNAP and other programs, not all Morgantown residents have as favorable view of these benefits.

When asked whether she’s familiar with the SNAP and WIC programs, her tone changes.

“I know I have to support it…so I’m not really for it,’’ Mary says, emphasizing that people need to work because if they don’t work, they don’t eat.

According to her, too many people get funds from these programs, and she says she knows people personally that probably make more money than she does a month because they get support from several different welfare sources. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010, 48 percent of benefits go to children, and another 8 percent assist individuals over the age of 60.

She adds that there are some disabled individuals who cannot work and need help, but overall she is not happy about system.

But community kitchen attendee Tania, who uses SNAP, reports a different experience than Mary.

“I am on SNAP now. I signed up for it, but I didn’t get much. I am just starting out (after recently moving to Morgantown), so it hasn’t been enough to make it. This fills in the gaps until I get anything else.”

In the past Tania used SNAP, and although she says it has not changed much, there are some noticeable differences in the process.

Most people on SNAP are not trying to “pull one over” on the system, according to Tania. In order to obtain benefits, one must prove his or her income, or lack thereof, to the government; this process has become much more difficult in recent years.

“Most people just really need it to eat, and the few that don’t (cooperate with the system) ruin it for the rest of us,” says Tania.

Behind Food Assistance Programs

 

Editor’s Note: Writers reported from Charleston and Morgantown, W.Va., as well as Baltimore, Md.

Over the years misconceptions about welfare and government programs have resisted cultural shifts, White House administrations, social movements and war. Since its beginning in the Great Depression, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has been associated with despondency and desperation. Decades later, these types of welfare programs are still misunderstood.

SNAP was created in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and a decrease in food access to individuals across the U.S. Decades later, in 1974, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was established to combat malnutrition within pregnant and infant populations and is exclusive to expectant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, infants and children under 5. For potential participants, the most significant difference between these two programs are the populations that can enroll.

For retailers looking to provide SNAP and WIC supplies, there is a list of requirements they must meet.

According to Heidi Staats, a social worker at West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR), the only requirements for SNAP is that retailers must meet three categories with dairy, protein, and processed foods.

“They are not necessarily healthy foods,” said Staats of the available SNAP products. “That’s basically why convenience stores are often SNAP-authorized versus WIC.”

Meanwhile, in order to become WIC-certified, retailers must go through an extensive application process, one that some have described as a “hassle,” said Staats.

“For WIC we have a large application process,” said Staats. “It’s about a 22-page application. The reason it’s so many pages is because they have to meet minimum stock requirements federally defined within our regulations.”

Retailers who are WIC-certified must carry at least eight gallons of milk (two gallons of whole milk and six gallons of low-fat milk), two varieties of fresh fruits, two varieties of vegetables and infant formula. For smaller vendors, it’s more difficult to stock the shelves with these items than it is for corporate retailers, like Walmart and Kroger.

Mountain People’s Co-op in Morgantown, W.Va., is one of the area’s local suppliers of fresh, organic produce and groceries. Like most food retailers, it is SNAP-certified.

Lillian Rose, the store’s weekend manager, has noticed how excited local customers are about the SNAP certification and believes the store encourages healthy eating among those who wouldn’t ordinarily shop for organic products. The SNAP certification has been quite successful for the small business, but Rose has found that the application process for WIC isn’t as easy as it was for SNAP.

“We don’t do WIC at this time, but it is something that we’re trying to look into,” said Rose. “It’s just a lot of paperwork and forms, but honestly, we haven’t had a huge demand for WIC.”

Despite the complex application process, Staats said both programs can be beneficial for retailers, especially in rural areas with low access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I can tell you that in a smaller county or a rural county with poverty, SNAP is going to be anywhere from 10 to 12 percent of their business,” said Staats. “For WIC, it averages anywhere from 1 to 8 percent. If you talk to the retailers directly, the reason they do it is for the community image.”

Image often plays a key role when it comes to retailers deciding to become SNAP or WIC certified because it’s enticing for customers — even those who aren’t SNAP or WIC participants. Having WIC certification offers some a competitive advantage if one retailer sells fresh produce and another does not. According to Staats, many customers prefer a retailer that carries WIC products because the products are healthy and nutrition criteria has been evaluated.

“If we could get a small convenience store to expand their options, we’re not just effecting change for the WIC population but also the whole population in that area,” said Staats.

SNAP and WIC are two of the largest food assistance programs in the United States. In West Virginia alone, the WIC program serves 75 percent of infants and one in three pregnant women.

However, many other individuals who might be eligible for SNAP or WIC never apply for the programs. Based on her experience with clients, Staats said individuals don’t participate in the WIC program because they don’t realize they are eligible or in need of assistance. A 2014 report from the USDAfound other reasons for lack of participation, including administrative hurdles, discouragement from previous denials or employers and a lack of awareness about application processes or eligibility requirements.

“Most people who don’t apply don’t understand the definition of ‘food insecure’,” said Staats. “Because not having access to healthy food all 30 days of the month makes you food insecure.”

Staats acknowledged that many SNAP participants who are also eligible for WIC believe they don’t need aid from both programs, despite the fact that SNAP benefits rarely stretch to the end of the month. Staats said that women usually choose to end their WIC participation as soon as their children have reached pre-school age. At that point they feel there is no need for cheaper infant formula, and the child has moved on to table foods, which are available with SNAP benefits.

Rachel Tucker, the senior program associate of Hunger Solutions in Baltimore, Md., also shared the importance of understanding food insecurity, believing individuals in her area understand it.

“It’s about not having both sort of geographic and financial or economic access to the food that you need and the primary reason is that you don’t have enough money,” said Tucker. “You don’t have enough money in your wallet, your wages are low, things like that, and people get that. I just don’t think everybody terms it that way.”

Both Staats and Tucker have witnessed the issues of the food system first hand and acknowledge there are policies that need to be revisited. For Staats, her №1 concern is the national stigma associated with SNAP and WIC programs.

Despite a 2015 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities stating only 3 percent of benefits went to ineligible households, Staats says that members of the public seem to believe that many are “cheating the system.”

Alicia Frum applied for SNAP 13 years ago at the DHHR office in Morgantown, W.Va., and has relied on the help ever since. As a mother, Frum is thankful for these programs, saying her family wouldn’t survive without them.

“I appreciate the help that the DHHR does provide and all the food banks do,” said Frum. “Not just me if I ever need it, but to everyone. If it were a community, we should all act like it. They should want to help us. They should try to help us as much as possible.”

Frum is one of many individuals who adhere to the rules and regulations of the SNAP program and use the benefits she receives to feed her family.

“The perception is that these people abuse the program or that they’re lazy and they sit at home and just want to live off the system,” said Staats. “But that’s not accurate. A lot of these people are going to school and trying to better themselves. There are folks working minimum-wage jobs with no possibility of ever meeting the needs of a household,” said Staats. “I also think, from WIC’s perspective, we see a lot of young moms who don’t have a lot of support.”

Common misconceptions are that SNAP benefits go to people who could be working, when in fact a majority of SNAP recipients are children and the elderly, according to Tucker. Of the remaining working-aged individuals, most of them are employed.

Tucker also spoke about the misconceptions of SNAP recipients in Maryland.

“People like to make arguments about poor people being lazy and all these awful things that we know aren’t true because we know that an overwhelming majority of people on SNAP are working the year prior and working after they’re on SNAP,” said Tucker.

Many of the misconceptions about individuals scheming the system come from unusual, publicized cases seen on the news, such as a West Virginia family using their SNAP benefits in Florida, an incident that Staats says is legal as the state allows its residents to take their benefits with them.

Staats is also concerned about the current relationship between the DHHR and WIC retailers. Typically, the program’s advisory council is heavily represented by corporate grocers.

“I need the small man who’s struggling to compete to have more input and be more involved in what’s happening to him,” said Staats. “I think it could definitely change the landscape and change the way programs are implemented if we had more input from those guys.”

Receiving input from small local grocery providers may only get more difficult in coming years. Starting in 2018, WIC will no longer be able to pay for the required Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) machines, leaving the expenses solely to the retailer.

“We have 283. We used to have 450,” said Staats regarding the number of certified WIC retailers in West Virginia. “How can I ask a guy who makes about $5,000 a year from WIC to pay $20 more a month for his machine? That’s $240 from a guy who is struggling to stay open.”

The new regulation may push retailers to opt out of the WIC program, creating more distance between families and food access. The regulation also makes it harder for Staats to convince retailers to apply for certification, a challenge she already struggles with. Unlike SNAP, WIC requires retailers to reapply every three years.

“In our central region, we only had 25 WIC vendors in the first place, and I had three that chose not to reauthorize because it’s ‘not worth the hassle’,” said Staats. “We now have this big expansive space that has nothing because it just ‘wasn’t worth the hassle’.”

Despite the existing issues within the SNAP and WIC programs, Staats sticks around because her job allows her to make connections with women and children and help them in ways other jobs would not.

“You know having a baby is a wonderful, life-changing event and we get to be a part of that,” said Staats. “Building that relationship goes way beyond affecting what they’re serving on their table to their children. It’s the purpose, but it’s much larger than that for a lot of women.”

Baltimore: Food Desert or Food Neglect?

By: Adrienne Lewis, Colleen Good, Kassy Taylor, David Statman, Emily Pelland, Nick Tabidze, and Synclaire Cruel

BALTIMORE, Md. — Joe Kilroy grew up in Howard County, Md. He has lived in the historic Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Vernon, filled with museums, galleries and restaurants north of the Inner Harbor, for two years.

It is “totally opposite of what people think of Baltimore,” he said.

Baltimore has the reputation of being violent, with 2015 reported as the most deadly year yet, but there is a greater harm to its people than homicide.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), one in four Baltimore residents live in a “food desert.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of a food desert is not having a fresh food source within a half-mile, while CLF limits the radius to a quarter-mile.

CLF created the Food System Map of Baltimore City, which is the first report of its kind to methodically detail food deserts in the area.

According to the CLF, an area in Baltimore city is considered a food desert if the distance to a supermarket or supermarket alternative is more than one-quarter mile, the median household income is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, more than 30 percent of households have no access to a vehicle, and the average healthy food availability score for all food stores is low.

When there is not a supermarket nearby, a person needs to travel to one, making transportation the next largest hurdle in a food desert.

While Kilroy likes the city, living there has had a negative effect on his physical health.

“The two years that I’ve been here, my cholesterol has skyrocketed,” he said, noting his blood sugar level was at a rate that concerned his doctor.

To avoid medication, his doctors suggested he adjust his diet to more whole foods and less-processed items. The mobile farmers market from the Real Food Farm helps, as long as it’s somewhere Kilroy can reach.

“If I were to get fresh produce, I would have to walk about a mile and a half to the supermarket,” said Kilroy.

Local Baltimore residents are determined to make a change in their communities and give people more access to fresh, healthy food.

Elder C.W. Harris, a prominent Baltimore activist, helped create the Strength to Love II, an urban farm in Sandtown-Winchester, a low-income but historic residential neighborhood in West Baltimore.

Several hoop houses, which resemble greenhouses, fill the block. Some were exposed and under construction, and others were filled with vegetables. The garden is folded between condemned houses, which line the city blocks.

Harris emphasized that there is no such thing as a food desert. Deserts are natural, and this is not. What this is, he gestured to the neighborhood, is “food neglect.”

Like the researchers at CLF, Charlotte Proctor, community market and outreach coordinator of the Real Food Farm, agrees that the definition should be restricted to one-quarter mile, rather than half a mile.

“In Baltimore, a half-mile can cover so much space,” Proctor said. “We pare it down to one-quarter mile when we talk about food deserts.”

Proctor and other volunteers operate the mobile farmers market, which brings fresh produce to communities that otherwise lack access.

This initiative directly addresses the issue of transportation, one of the factors in food neglect.

“If you’ve spoken to anyone who rides the bus, it’s not always convenient. Personally, I just want everyone to eat well and income to not be a barrier,” Proctor said. “That’s something we’re trying to target with our mobile farmers market and making sure it’s also accessible.”

Hands that Feed

By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For many, sharing cooking tips and conversation over meals is a part of daily life. This is no different for Ashley Reece, food pantry coordinator at Christian Help in Morgantown, W.Va.

Reece values the time she spends talking with her clients. On some days, the conversation revolves around how to cook kohlrabi, and on others she engages in small talk, seeing how her clients’ days are going.

“Our clients are busy people. It is really time-consuming to be living in poverty, and there’s not always somebody for them to talk to,” Reece said. “And just being heard can make a huge difference in the way somebody’s day is going — the decisions they make, and you know, how they’re just feeling and how their mental health is.”

Reece, originally from Clinton, N.J., serves as pantry coordinator for Christian Help through AmeriCorps. She said she was unaware of the poverty rates in Morgantown when she first arrived.

“Food insecurity is experienced in this county at rates higher than the national average,” Reece said.“Before I started, I figured I would be working with a lot of people who are in need, but I thought that (Monongalia) County couldn’t possibly be that food insecure.”

According to Feeding America, Monongalia County had a food insecurity rate of 16.1 percent in 2014. Nationwide, 13.5 percent of households in the United States were food insecure in 2015.

Christian Help is one of 11 agencies that participates with the United Way Family Resource Network Food and Hunger Committee in Monongalia County. Solicitation of funds and donations are streamlined through this committee, which also includes Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Scott’s Run Settlement House, and Monongalia County Starting Points, among other organizations.

According to the Food and Hunger Committee, more than 34,500 individuals have been served by these agencies since 2013. Reece said she was “shocked” and “taken aback” by those numbers.

“Chances are you know someone who has been fed through one of these programs,” Reece said.“People are from Westover, South Park, all sorts of places. They are carrying heavy bags. People come here because they need to.”

A little can go a long way in times of need. However, Reece wants to provide the healthiest possible food for her clients. She remembers helping a single mom who had recently visited Christian Help for her first food order.

“I packed (the food bag) all up and started giving her some extra items, including a cupcake for her and each of her children,” Reece said, noting they don’t typically have sweets to give out. “…I mentioned what bag (the cupcakes) were in to ensure it wouldn’t get knocked over or crushed, and the woman grabbed my wrist and started crying. She was so excited to be able to bring a treat home to share with her family.”

Although sweets make a great treat, Reece said much of her interest is in providing healthy options for clients. Because Christian Help is a donation-based pantry, she said items that may be less nutritious than others are still appreciated; however, she loves receiving items like fresh produce.

The local farmer’s market, hosted every Saturday down the street from the pantry, is a gold mine for donations to Christian Help. Farmers are able to fill the agency’s crates with produce that went unsold on a Saturday morning.

“I think it is a little unsustainable for somebody to only eat healthy foods, especially if that’s something you are not used to,” Reece said.

Reece said it also pains her to give out canned fruits that contain heavy syrup instead of real fruit juice or water.

“Every time I give it out, I feel like it is taking something that should be healthy and should be a great option for people to have with their breakfast or to share with their kids, and it’s just in this sugary syrup that is just disgusting,” she said. “And it really ruins the entire point of giving out fruit in the first place.”

From trying to find resources from local farms to, over time, changing the way people view food security, Reece is determined to better the pantry, providing healthful options to individuals in need in Morgantown.

“Food insecurity is real. Hunger is real. People do not use these agencies because it is easy or convenient. They’re using them because they are desperate and have children to feed. Poverty and food insecurity can happen to anyone.”

 

History of the United States Food System