This past week, our hunger relief organization convened to discuss strategies that could impact our state in the next few years. We opened with a general discussion of what the problems are in West Virginia that lead to or stem from hunger. The more common topics came up immediately, including addiction, job opportunities, food access and intergenerational poverty. As we delved deeper into the question, two familiar but uncomfortable problems arose: The issues of trust and pride.
While it’s no secret that West Virginian’s struggle with these two issues, the connections to hunger and poverty aren’t always transparent. According to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, 267,000 individuals in West Virginia are at risk of hunger daily, including 76,000 children. More than likely a family member, co-worker, or parent that you chat with at your local student activity is part of this data. But, just as likely, many folks that suffer from the hunger problem in West Virginia, are not.
Map the Meal Gap is based on data collected by the annual American Community Survey, which collects data from a representative sample, aggregated and then presented in summary form. As someone with a social science research background, I recognize that our issues with trust and pride in West Virginia are difficult to gauge in survey data. Some real responses that I’ve heard over the years include “It’s none of their business” (trust) and “we take care of our own” (pride). As a life-long West Virginian, I’ve probably uttered those phrases many times myself.
The real concern becomes that we don’t allow ourselves to recognize the depth of the problems we are facing, or even admit that they are problems to begin with. We discussed this in strategic planning as if we don’t recognize a problem, then we how can we come up with effective solutions.
Hunger is a problem in West Virginia, and a very public one.
We have public programs including The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that focus on providing excess food to struggling families. TEFAP is a supplemental program that provides food through our two West Virginia food banks to community feeding programs to be distributed locally. All West Virginia counties are impacted by the TEFAP program, receiving annually $4 to $5 million worth of federal commodities each year. These dollars come in the form of food only.
Unfortunately, funding to operate the program (fuel costs, warehousing and handling, etc.) has only been funded at the 50 to 60 percent levels by the federal government historically, leaving the gap to be filled by the state and private sector.
While TEFAP is a critical program in West Virginia, it accounts for only a quarter of the food and programs operated by the food banks. $15 to $20 million worth of food is distributed through Backpack programs, mobile pantries, veterans programs and other streams of food distribution models. Which means filling in the gap for a government program always involves tradeoffs for the other programs the food banks operate.
This year looks to be unlike any of the past years, as due to trade mitigation payment due to the tariff battle, food banks are receiving unprecedented amounts of commodities. West Virginia stands to receive $6 to $7 million in additional food commodities in 2019, with little additional funding for getting those foods to the hungry families that need them.
Our West Virginia Department of Agriculture has been an outstanding advocate for the two food banks and their network of 600 feeding programs on the issues that this funding gap will cause. They recognize that without appropriate funding for trucks, fuel, drivers and warehousing costs, the additional commodities could stretch an already delicate infrastructure. But, our communities need the food. Our West Virginia families need the food.
This coming Tuesday, March 5, Governor Jim Justice will proclaim Hunger Free West Virginia Day at the capitol. I encourage every West Virginian to join us that day and also look for ways that they can impact their communities positively in the hunger relief world, whether that community is your town, your county or your state.
Hunger is solvable if we work together.
Morrison is executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway.