By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For many, sharing cooking tips and conversation over meals is a part of daily life. This is no different for Ashley Reece, food pantry coordinator at Christian Help in Morgantown, W.Va.
Reece values the time she spends talking with her clients. On some days, the conversation revolves around how to cook kohlrabi, and on others she engages in small talk, seeing how her clients’ days are going.
“Our clients are busy people. It is really time-consuming to be living in poverty, and there’s not always somebody for them to talk to,” Reece said. “And just being heard can make a huge difference in the way somebody’s day is going — the decisions they make, and you know, how they’re just feeling and how their mental health is.”
Reece, originally from Clinton, N.J., serves as pantry coordinator for Christian Help through AmeriCorps. She said she was unaware of the poverty rates in Morgantown when she first arrived.
“Food insecurity is experienced in this county at rates higher than the national average,” Reece said.“Before I started, I figured I would be working with a lot of people who are in need, but I thought that (Monongalia) County couldn’t possibly be that food insecure.”
Christian Help is one of 11 agencies that participates with the United Way Family Resource Network Food and Hunger Committee in Monongalia County. Solicitation of funds and donations are streamlined through this committee, which also includes Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Scott’s Run Settlement House, and Monongalia County Starting Points, among other organizations.
According to the Food and Hunger Committee, more than 34,500 individuals have been served by these agencies since 2013. Reece said she was “shocked” and “taken aback” by those numbers.
“Chances are you know someone who has been fed through one of these programs,” Reece said.“People are from Westover, South Park, all sorts of places. They are carrying heavy bags. People come here because they need to.”
A little can go a long way in times of need. However, Reece wants to provide the healthiest possible food for her clients. She remembers helping a single mom who had recently visited Christian Help for her first food order.
“I packed (the food bag) all up and started giving her some extra items, including a cupcake for her and each of her children,” Reece said, noting they don’t typically have sweets to give out. “…I mentioned what bag (the cupcakes) were in to ensure it wouldn’t get knocked over or crushed, and the woman grabbed my wrist and started crying. She was so excited to be able to bring a treat home to share with her family.”
Although sweets make a great treat, Reece said much of her interest is in providing healthy options for clients. Because Christian Help is a donation-based pantry, she said items that may be less nutritious than others are still appreciated; however, she loves receiving items like fresh produce.
The local farmer’s market, hosted every Saturday down the street from the pantry, is a gold mine for donations to Christian Help. Farmers are able to fill the agency’s crates with produce that went unsold on a Saturday morning.
“I think it is a little unsustainable for somebody to only eat healthy foods, especially if that’s something you are not used to,” Reece said.
Reece said it also pains her to give out canned fruits that contain heavy syrup instead of real fruit juice or water.
“Every time I give it out, I feel like it is taking something that should be healthy and should be a great option for people to have with their breakfast or to share with their kids, and it’s just in this sugary syrup that is just disgusting,” she said. “And it really ruins the entire point of giving out fruit in the first place.”
From trying to find resources from local farms to, over time, changing the way people view food security, Reece is determined to better the pantry, providing healthful options to individuals in need in Morgantown.
“Food insecurity is real. Hunger is real. People do not use these agencies because it is easy or convenient. They’re using them because they are desperate and have children to feed. Poverty and food insecurity can happen to anyone.”