This story was produced in collaboration with Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit news organization that aims to hold the powerful accountable and tell the stories of West Virginians and the issues facing their communities. The civic news website is led by award-winning reporter and MacArthur fellow Ken Ward Jr. and Greg Moore, former executive editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The newsroom, which will begin publishing regularly in September, includes four Report for America corps members covering poverty, public health, economic development and other subjects.
CHARLESTON — Jennifer Boyle-Hempel eats just once a day so she can save her limited food for her kids. She and her husband run an art studio in Elkins, but they are out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, she hasn’t had enough food to feed everyone in her house, which includes three teenagers.
“I’m a mom. I can handle it,” she said. “But it’s different when you eat once a day because you’re tired. I know I have to save food for tomorrow because my daughter is going to be hungry.”
Her teenage daughter relies on a free food box that’s available at her designated summer feeding site at Elkins High School.
But Boyle-Hempel’s family has only one car, and they can’t always get to the high school, which is a 30-minute drive from their family farm in Beverly. Boyle-Hempel picks up a food box when she can.
“Our daughter is always trying to give us food out of her lunches,” she said.
When Gov. Jim Justice mandated that schools close in March, schools and nonprofits jumped into action to make sure food was available to kids. School lots turned into drive-in feeding sites, bus drivers dropped off meal boxes to kids hidden in hollers, and the National Guard assisted in food handouts. State officials said they served a million meals to students in one month.
Then summer arrived, and the number of food sites shrank. School systems with tight budgets couldn’t sustain as many feeding programs or pay bus drivers to deliver meals to isolated communities. Many summer camps and in-person tutoring programs, which typically help feed kids in summer, never opened because of COVID-19.
Justice has touted an online map of summer feeding sites for students and seniors.
“In West Virginia we are truly knocking it out of the park on this,” the governor said in June.
But the plan has holes: Feeding sites are only accessible by families who have a vehicle. There is a two-hour pickup window in the middle of one workday for a week’s worth of food. And the plan relies on the state’s cash-strapped nonprofits to fill in the gaps.
Even before summer, West Virginia hunger advocates, including parents, said that kids were going hungry. The West Virginia Department of Education estimates it will hand out 6 million meals this summer, according to communications director Christy Day, but the department did not know the total number of students in need of food.
The Food for All Coalition, a statewide group of individuals and organizations focused on hunger, didn’t have a count either. In a strongly worded April letter to the Republican governor, the coalition outlined problems in the state’s plan and warned that a better, more comprehensive plan needed to be in place before federal dollars arrived to address COVID-related needs.
The group asked the governor in the letter to direct funds to bus driver deliveries, and to better coordinate summer feeding plans among the state, schools and nonprofits.
“Your leadership is especially critical,” the letter said.
Justice hasn’t spent any of the state’s $1.25 billion in CARES Act funding — federal money for coronavirus-related expenses — on feeding kids this summer, Day said.
The governor has not directly designated CARES Act money for any food relief efforts in the state, according to Deputy State Auditor Anthony Woods, though local governments receiving funds could use the money for food relief provided they meet the requirements of the CARES Act.
Some states have done just that. In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy allocated $20 million in CARES Act funds to local food banks. Gov. Tim Walz in Minnesota said he will spend $12 million on hunger relief.
In June, after West Virginia schools closed and food access worsened, the Food for All Coalition sent a second letter to Justice about the problem. The group emphasized that the governor now had federal money to put toward the issue, and asked for CARES funds to address the feeding gaps, specifically to pay bus drivers to deliver meals.
The bus routes were already set up, and drivers would know kids most in need, coalition members argued.
“The fastest and most comprehensive way to close the nutrition gap this summer is to financially support county boards of education ability to deliver meals via bus route throughout West Virginia,” the letter said.
Justice did not respond to the coalition’s letters, the group said. The governor’s office also did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
“The situation is clearly not as good as the governor is telling people,” said Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy and a member of the coalition. “[The state] is just counting on families having the ability to get to a fixed site to get a five-day meal drop in a 90 minute or two-hour period. A fraction of a fraction of [CARES Act] money, if put toward [food] delivery would make an enormous difference in making food accessible.”
The second letter did result in a meeting between coalition members and state education department officials on June 29.
During that meeting, department administrators did not make a plan to address food access and transportation issues, DiStefano said.
West Virginia lawmakers have repeatedly failed to advance a “Summer Feeding for All” bill that would have required districts to survey student food insecurities during summer, as well as during unanticipated breaks from school. If the bill had passed, superintendents could have written detailed feeding plans before the pandemic and known the scope of hungry kids in their counties.
Researchers with the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University estimated that in 2019, before COVID-19 worsened the state’s unemployment rate, 178,000 West Virginia students missed out on summer meals. Those students relied on school food during the school year, and researchers compared how many students were eligible for meals to how many actually received free food in their counties.
Additionally, one in five children in West Virginia struggle to get food on a regular basis, according to Save the Children’s recent report. The global nonprofit ranked the state 42nd in the country for childhood hunger.
Melanie Purkey, senior administrator for the state’s Office of Student Support and Federal Programs, said that for the first time this year, the department asked counties to create at least one feeding site for each high school attendance area.
Schools, some through partnerships with local nonprofits, have handed out more than 1.9 million meals so far this summer, said Day, the department’s spokeswoman.
Cabell County, which has one of the state’s most robust summer feeding programs with 51 sites and six bus drivers, handed out more than 800,000 meals before July 7, said school spokesman Jedd Flowers.
The feeding programs vary from county to county. Only a handful of school systems are paying to deliver food by bus, while others are only offering a once-a-week meal box pick-up to families with vehicles.
For families without cars — about 9% of West Virginia households did not own a vehicle in 2018 — or gas money, it’s almost impossible to get to a school feeding site miles away.
Kanawha County, the state’s largest school system, has 19 such sites handing out an average of 4,250 meals a week, but Riverside High School remains out of reach for Jessica Smith.
The 39-year-old mom lives in Belle with two kids at home. She doesn’t have a car and can’t pick up food at her designated site. The high school is six miles from her home, and the walk is alongside a four-lane road.
“We’re just stuck with no way to get lunches,” Smith said. “I’m having to scrape up stuff for my kids. My son seems like he’s never full. It’s disheartening.”
Money has been tight in her household during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband, who works at a nearby hospital, was recently furloughed.
She said 10 other families in her community don’t have the means to get to the high school for food boxes. During the school year, meals were available at a nearby elementary school within walking distance.
“If we just had a car and could get up there, then we’d be up there every week,” Smith said.
The summer feeding program is costing Kanawha County $1.3 million, which does not include paying bus drivers, according to Kanawha County Schools spokeswoman Briana Warner.
Greenbrier County — home to Justice and his luxury resort, The Greenbrier — can’t afford to deliver meals on bus routes, said state Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.
Baldwin has been heavily involved in food distribution plans for the county since the pandemic started. He works with nonprofits, the local health department and schools to meet the needs of families in his district.
The county went from 18 feeding sites and bus deliveries when school was in session to six sites this summer.
Jenny Curry, child nutrition director for Greenbrier County Schools, said the school system has never fed as many students during the summer as it is now.
But that doesn’t mean kids aren’t going hungry, she said, and the absence of bus driver deliveries is one of the reasons why.
The school system ordered and distributed around 2,000 food boxes per week at the beginning of the summer break, based on the need they’d seen during the school year. Curry said they estimated they’d need 770 boxes per week in July for numerous reasons, including parents who couldn’t make it to food pick up sites.
Bus drivers are key to reaching the neediest kids, Baldwin said.
“Bus drivers were the unsung heroes,” he said. “ They know every kid on those bus routes and what their situation is. They knew that kids wouldn’t be home at certain times, like, if they’d be staying with their grandparent.”
In Kanawha County, nonprofit Step by Step is paying the county to use its bus drivers to deliver food three times a week to a handful of affordable housing developments in Charleston.
Related: This story is part of a project exploring the dimensions of daily life in West Virginia, “coal country” as it’s known, where chronic job loss has affected every aspect of life since the industry’s decline began in the 1960s. For generations, communities have grappled with teacher shortages, homelessness, business closures and food insecurity, problems that worsened when the coronavirus struck in March and West Virginians began to see their children go hungry.
“We know there are a lot of students who lack transportation, and they will not have the means to get out and get their meals,” said Michael Farmer, Step by Step’s program director.
Throughout the state, other nonprofits are partnering with school systems or attempting to fill in the feeding gaps.
Jenny Anderson, who runs a Facebook page aimed at connecting West Virginia parents with food resources, said she regularly sends parents to food banks and nonprofits rather than school feeding sites because they are more accessible.
“I think the governor is [assuming] these nonprofits can feed kids for the rest of the summer,” Anderson said. “He doesn’t understand the limit of the volunteers and the funding. Even the nonprofits that specialize in feeding kids did not anticipate the needs they see now.”
It’s not feasible for nonprofits and small church food pantries to pick up the tab for feeding kids across the state, said Josh Lohnes, food policy research director at West Virginia University.
Related: “Vanishing West Virginia” is a photo series by F. Brian Ferguson spanning decades of daily life in coal country. Explore the full story here.
Getting food will be an ongoing problem for students who do not return to the classroom five days a week. It is unclear what the upcoming school year will look like.
“If you’re banking on the philanthropic community to do this, then only Kanawha County and some of these wealthier counties are going to be able to deliver food,” said Lohnes, who’s a member of the Food For All Coalition. “We’re saying it is the state’s responsibility, and you have this money. It doesn’t have to be a bus driver, it can be a church driver, but you need to pay them.”
DiStefano said the coalition is asking the governor to give the Department of Education $12.5 million, 1% of the state’s CARES Act budget, to get food to families.
A large chunk of the requested money, DiStefano explained, would be spent on making sure a food delivery system that includes bus drivers is in place from now through the upcoming school year. The coalition also asked the governor to require superintendents to publish concrete plans for feeding children during the pandemic.
“There are a lot of kids left behind,” DiStefano said. “We are clear that it is the government’s responsibility and the Justice administration’s responsibility to make sure kids are fed, period.”
Amelia Ferrell Knisely writes about poverty for Mountain State Spotlight and is a Report for America corps member. This story, in partnership with “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth, is part of a project series on West Virginia in collaboration with Mountain State Spotlight and a version of this reporting appeared on their site. Contact Amelia if you’ve experienced issues accessing food during COVID-19 and would like to share your story. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or her follow on Twitter: @ameliaknisely.
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