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Bridging the Health Divide: North Central West Virginia food pantries help those facing hunger

Published: Mar. 15, 2021 at 5:02 PM EDT
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PRESTON COUNTY W.Va (WDTV) - A year into the pandemic, North Central West Virginia is facing food insecurity now more than ever. Food insecurity leads to other stemming health factors that can greatly affect families.

Community Impact Director of United Way for Monongalia and Preston Counties Janette Lewis says that her time in social work has shown proof of these issues.

“I started to see families where I would work with these children and the families had a lot of obesity issues and health issues,” said Lewis. “I would work with children that were four and five years old that should have weighed about 40 or 45 pounds, but weighed 60 pounds, 90 pounds with high blood pressure and they were food insecure.”

Lewis says the problem starts with food. Many pantries accept any and all donations which are usually cheap, unhealthy items and are even sometimes expired. Lewis says that it’s not how much you eat, rather what you eat.

Reports show more than one million meals were provided to children in West Virginia during the first month of the pandemic in March of 2020. Also, food pantries saw an increased need by over 50%. This is around the same time the Helpful Harvest Program was created. The Helpful Harvest Program started as an initiative to provide healthy and nutritious food items to food pantries and feeding programs in Monongalia and Preston Counties so that those in the community had healthier food options.

“Just because you’re food insecure, it does not mean you can’t eat healthy,” said Lewis.

The program serves around 13,000 people every month; 60% of those are elders.

Maple Springs food pantry is about an hour down the road from the Helpful Harvest headquarters. The Director Cathi Harsh says that there is a major need for healthy options.

“My whole life I’ve had the need to feed people. Until you live it, you really don’t understand it, but I’ve actually been homeless in my life and lived in a car,” said Harsh. “But even other times when I had two young children and the paycheck doesn’t reach far enough, I know there’s a lot of people that deal with that, and now especially.”

The Maple Springs food pantry has been receiving food items from the Helpful Harvest food program which has helped them serve a fresh meal twice a month as well as provide a pantry box filled with food items to take home. This is crucial when location is a factor. Before Lewis started this food pantry and before the pandemic, many in need of food had to travel across the border to Oakland, Maryland or to the nearest town. Even a 10-15 mile drive in either direction could be difficult for those without transportation, especially in the more rural areas.

Lewis hopes that even beyond the pandemic, people of all ages won’t have to face hunger or digest food that could lead to further problems.

“When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from it kind of ruins the rest of your life too,” Harsh said.

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