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Helping the food insecure

Representatives from more than a dozen local nonprofit organizations that serve people in need of food gathered Thursday morning for a discussion on how they can work together to better serve a growing food insecure population in Monongalia County.

“Food insecurity is not just the low-income people,” said Janette Lewis, community impact director at United Way of Mon and Preston Counties. “We have people that are working two jobs now trying to put food on the table and pay their bills.

“Sometimes folks are having to choose whether they pay their electric bill, their rent, or have dinner tonight — so that’s where we’re at these days and what we’re facing with inflation, everyone knows, just an average price of a drive-thru meal for your child after tee-ball practice is so costly, so folks are really suffering right now.”

Organized by the United Way of Mon and Preston Counties and WVU Center for Community Outreach, the gathering gave the various individual organizations an opportunity to discuss the services they offer, any requirements to receive those services, and the challenges they are facing. Funding, transportation, and nutrition were among the top concerns.

Because each group serves different clients, on different days, and in different ways, the meeting was also an opportunity for them to learn where they may be able to send people they can’t serve.

“I think it went really well today,” Lewis said. “I think it opened up the discussion; now, we just have to keep the momentum going and the excitement in the room.

“We learned a lot about each other today and the needs that are out there in the community. I think we have some working goals from today and the group is willing to come back and meet together, so we are going to make this an ongoing thing and keep the communication open. I think we made a lot of progress today.”

Lewis said that while many of the organizations do collaborate and partner together, they can do a much-better job overall.

Over the past few years, Lewis said it has been a topic of conversation with the county commission and with the foundations that we have a lot of duplicate services, and every year they receive a lot of funding requests for multiple feeding programs in the county.

“They ask why so many, why don’t we all work together, who do we give funding to over another program,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of communicating within our organizations.”

Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom, who also serves on the board of Pantry Plus More, agreed saying about 5 years ago, the county commission started getting so many individual requests from food insecurity groups, “we really didn’t have a handle on who was doing what.”

While nothing was officially decided at the meeting, one option the group will consider is the creation of a larger nonprofit that would serve as an umbrella over all the individual pantries in the county, helping them secure funding through grants and other avenues, as well as assist with securing food and volunteers.

In Preston County, Food for Preston has been using this model successfully for years and works to secure food, funding and volunteers for the county’s 15 food pantries, the backpack program, and the school stores program, said Coordinator Tammy Laney, who explained how their organization functions and how it benefits the entire county.

“We also want to focus on nutrition,” Lewis said. “Just because you’re food insecure doesn’t mean you have to eat what people don’t want in their pantry.

“West Virginia has high obesity and heart disease rates and it’s not how much people are eating, it’s what they are eating, and so our children are unhealthy because they are not getting the right foods at home,” she said. “Especially our seniors with fixed incomes trying to go to the grocery store and buy nutritional foods if they’re diabetic, but they’re forced to make unhealthy choices because they can’t afford the healthy choices. There’s a lot of gaps.”

Transportation was also a concern for many of the groups who deliver meals or food boxes to their clients. Models in Clay and Mercer counties that use collaborations with county school bus drivers and Door Dash drivers were discussed as potential solutions for Mon County as well.

Representatives from Pantry Plus More, Project Healthy Kids, The Rack student food pantry at WVU, United Way of Mon and Preston Counties, Helpful Harvest, West Virginia 211, Catholic Charities, Community Kitchen, Mon County Meals on Wheels, Canyon Food Pantry, Mountaineer Food Bank, Scott’s Run Settlement House, Empty Bowls Monongalia, and Christian Help attended the meeting. A few groups were unable to attend due to schedule conflicts.

Morgantown City Councilor Danielle Trumble and Assistant City Manager Emily Muzzarelli, state Sen. Mike Oliverio, the Rev. Will Myers of Presbyterian Student Fellowship at WVU, and Mike Ryan and Brian Kiehl from Monongalia County Schools also joined the conversation.

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