By: Ariel Craig, Lauren Caccamo, Minying Kong, Mostafa Hashem, Savannah Ashworth, Theresa Beverly
GRAFTON, W.Va. — In 2012, Bryan Smith was immobilized after being struck by a car. While the life-altering experience left him physically handicapped, it was what drove him to help his community in Taylor County, W.Va., combat food insecurity and health issues.
“A lot of people were going to different food pantries, and some of the smaller food pantries would end up running out of food toward the end of the months,” said Smith. “So the idea came that we needed a food pantry to collaborate.”
This idea led to Project HOP2E’s mobile food pantry, which is designed to help anyone who doesn’t have access to transportation.
“It could be senior citizens or anybody without a vehicle or even anybody who’s hospitalized,” said Smith. “We go out there and make sure these people have something to eat.”
When Smith began working with Project HOP2E, the first thing he did was trash the available junk food in the pantry and implement a focus on healthy eating. A key feature of this focus is the organization’s garden, which has produced approximately 35,000 pounds of food this year.
“Our garden grew from 5,000 square feet to 11,000 square feet this year,” said Smith. “I just know that we’ve been getting a lot of food out of it.”
Project HOP2E receives much of its food supply from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but also receives donations from large grocery stores, like Walmart and Shop-n-Save.
In addition to the mobile food pantry and garden, the organization contributes to Taylor County’s “backpack program,” which provides weekend supplies of food to school children from low-income families. From 2015 to 2016, the number of students receiving food from the backpack program has increased from 90 to 700.
“They come to us when they need to order from the food bank, so we help them with that,” said Smith regarding the area’s school staff. “I guess they’re having some issues with the kids not wanting to take their backpacks home because some of those kids are so hungry that they’ll just open it right there and start eating. A lot of time the only food they’ll get is what they get at school or in those backpacks.”
Project HOP2E also has initiatives that have proven beneficial to the Taylor County community. In 2015, for example, the “New Year, New You” weight loss challenge encouraged families to eat healthy foods. One 9-year-old participant entered the initiative with a negative mindset about eating healthy but now encourages his mom to shop for healthy foods and hopes to become a physical fitness trainer someday, Smith said. Smith’s main objective is to prevent individuals from becoming overweight like him, and plans on expanding the “New Year, New You” weight loss challenge this year.
“Last year we had 146 people sign up for that competition, and they collectively lost 1,987 pounds,” said Smith.
Smith says that by this year, he has been able to get six counties involved in the competition. The money that a county raises will then go to the food pantries within that county.
According to Smith, many individuals who need help from Project HOP2E feel ashamed and let pride and embarrassment stand in the way of receiving healthy food supplies. However, Smith’s encounter in the automobile that immobilized him is an experience that drives him to assist his clients.
“When I was run over, I could barely walk or get up or do anything, and it was embarrassing having to ask people to help me, so I can only imagine what it must be like to have to ask for help getting food,” said Smith. “I think a lot of times when they come to the food pantries you have to let them know you truly care and are there to help them while encouraging them to try different things.”
For Smith, the best part about Project HOP2E is giving back to his community and providing the necessary means to prevent health problems caused by being overweight.
“I don’t want to see a lot of people go through the same problems I’ve had being overweight, so my favorite thing about this job is helping people,” said Smith. “I want to help people in any way I can…I believe that if we all work together we could make this world a better place.”