Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

GUEST ESSAY: As ‘normalcy’ returns, food banks still need community’s help

by Cynthia Kirkhart  and J. Chad Morrison

The last year has really taught us all a lot about ourselves. That we are resilient, giving and able to work together to make sure that the most basic needs of our neighbors — food, shelter, water, and clothing — are met. In many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best in people, but it has also ripped the blindfold off for many that basic needs are a struggle for so many families every day.

Prior to the pandemic, 13.9% of West Virginians struggled with hunger, higher than the national average. The rate for children was even higher — 20.3%. COVID-19 brought an additional 70,000 people visiting the food banks and food pantries over the past year.

With the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act by Congress, there is potential for great gains in lifting families out of poverty. In addition to extending and expanding nutrition assistance, the act lays the groundwork for reducing child poverty by almost half.

Here at home, the West Virginia Legislature is in the home stretch for building a state budget, which could again include funding for the state’s two food bank networks. During the 2020 session, Gov. Jim Justice and the Legislature included $1 million to support the state’s two food banks, a first in the history of West Virginia. The timing for these first-time funds supported a growing narrative for food banks that they are not just charities doing good deeds, but a part of the critical infrastructure of the state.

The food banks did do good deeds and fed hundreds of thousands of people with millions of pounds of food over the past year. We provided infrastructure in the form of refrigerators, freezers, racking and trailers to our member agencies—pantries and other organizations that provide emergency hunger relief — to increase their capacity to provide more of the right food to the right people at the right time, and honoring the governor’s desire to ensure communities have what they need to provide emergency hunger relief. We worked on the front lines, in partnership with the National Guard, educators, nurses and volunteers to make sure struggling families had food on their plates at the end of the day.

The need is still high and a return to “normalcy” still includes 1 in 7 people not having enough food. That’s never been good enough and now, more than ever, we know that we can do better, because in our COVID-19 responses, we have all done more to address the problems we have. Imagine, if we would just truly bind together to address hunger with the urgency that we’ve acted on over the past year.

We have a chance now to do better than normal and average.

The funds dedicated by the Legislature will help feed thousands today, but it will also change lives and in many cases save those lives. The attention of these funds to hunger relief is strongly needed. In our pandemic response, food banks experienced a 48.1% increase in transportation costs and a staggering 187.8% increase in food purchasing cost from the prior year.

For tomorrow, we need to continue our investments in food systems and food access throughout the state. We need better storage and distribution facilities and logistics networks for food being grown in West Virginia and that’s coming into West Virginia for the consumer market and food being distributed through emergency hunger relief networks. We need that infrastructure to create jobs, attract manufacturers and start shortening the line of hunger relief.

We know that working together is the key to keeping our communities fed, but we can’t do it alone. We need strong support and funding to continue feeding families and households struggling to make ends meet. Both food banks work together through a collaborative effort called Hunger Free West Virginia, even prior to the pandemic. It’s only through working together that we truly can achieve a hunger-free West Virginia.

We have a chance right now to do that. And we can, because we’ve shown we can.

Cynthia Kirkhart is the CEO of Facing Hunger Food Bank, and J. Chad Morrison is the CEO of Mountaineer Food Bank.