By: Hilary Kinney, Egill Karlsson, Simone Benson, and Zach Hohn
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — While Morgantown is home to the largest university in West Virginia, it also contains a multitude of lesser-known, hidden gems.
The Community Kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church on Willey Street serves approximately 60 to 95 hungry people five days a week. With the help of donations and volunteers, Mary Yacco, the kitchen manager, not only provides hot meals to the Morgantown community Monday through Friday, but her services go far beyond the food.
Yacco forms friendships with many of the people who attend her kitchen over the course of time. One woman in particular is Tania, a Monongalia County native who just returned home after five years living in the deep South. (Tania declined to provide her last name due to privacy reasons).
“I’m at the kitchen every day. As long as they are open, I’m here,” says Tania. “Mary is a sweet, sweet lady. She does not tolerate a lot of ignorance or rudeness. All and all, everything has been pretty good here. I’m glad to be home.”
Even though Tania only spends about five hours at the kitchen a week, it has a huge impact on her life.
“You have to have a good attitude. We would be really lost without places like this. It might only be an hour out of the 24-hour day, but you get in, you sit down,get something to eat, something to drink, talk to some people. It helps, because when you are having a bad day and you’re hungry and tired, and all you want is something to eat, well, here you go. You got it,” says Tania.
In addition to the mood-boosting power of the people at the kitchen, Tania is also grateful for everything that happens behind the scenes.
“The local grocery stores are so great about helping out. A lot of people donate to the kitchen. It’s a big project to keep this stuff running, and it takes a lot of people to make it happen, but they always do it,” says Tania.
Making ends meet in West Virginia
While Tania has just recently started taking advantage of the kitchen’s program, others have been coming for years. Among the common community kitchen attendees is another Monongalia County resident, Greg Gallagher.
“I start(ed) coming here mid- to late-80s,” says Gallagher. “I was working for the Dominion Post at the time, and the hours were cut, so I had to supplement my food income, so that’s when I started coming here. I enjoy coming here a lot. People are friendly; food is good; it has a good social aspect, too.”
Gallagher is a self-employed author but does not qualify for SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, benefits due to his income being too high for the program. Maximum income must be below $15,444 for a household of one in West Virginia.
He relies on the various Morgantown feeding programs. Morgantown has a wide variety of food charities that allows people of all types to access food. Gallagher is a believer in these food programs, as they can help everyone. Besides regular attendance to the community kitchen, Gallagher also visits University Avenue’s Salvation Army, Potter’s Cellar and more.
“It’s just that Morgantown really needs these feeding programs,” says Gallagher. “You got a lot of people who are working but don’t make a lot of money, and you got students that are away from home for the first time, this helps them too.”
Farming and finding healthy options
For those who access food on their own, there are options aplenty in Morgantown. Aldi, a discount grocer, is just outside of downtown Morgantown. An Aldi shopper’s main priorities are affordability and simplicity.
Although unfamiliar with the plight of food insecurity, Morgantown resident Charles Strahin still chooses his food sources carefully, with price and nutrition value in mind.
Strahin started shopping at the Aldi in Morgantown when it opened over a decade ago. Its location is on his way home from work, and the store’s fruit prices keep him coming back.
Even when Strahin decided to try to lose weight one year ago, he continued shopping at his usual spot. He said he has continued to find healthy options for his improved diet at Aldi.
“Mostly, I don’t do any sweets, and I eat all-natural foods if I can,” Strahin said. “I like to make sure, if I can find stuff that’s organically grown, I do that more often.”
Although he is a fan of Aldi’s deals, Strahin’s sources the majority of his food based on the best sales in town. At a given time, certain store locations have better prices than others, and Strahin finds affordability and nutritional value to be of the utmost importance when purchasing food.
SNAP benefits: differing perspectives
Grocery shopping on her way home from work, Fairmont resident Mary, who did not want to give her last name, says she has shopped at Aldi grocery store since 2007. Loading her bags into the trunk of her car on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in September 2016, she says the main reason she shops there are the prices and the quality of the products.
“It’s kind of on the way home, so it’s convenient as far as that goes. And it’s small, you can get in and get out,’’ Mary says.
Mary says she buys food when it goes on sale at Kroger or can’t find it elsewhere, adding that ‘’Walmart is a last resort.”
She uses her own salary to purchase food and satisfies most of her food needs at grocery stores, but she also has a big garden where she grows food herself.
“I grow tomatoes, so I do tomato juice, tomato sauce, stew tomatoes, salsa, green beans, and we have all kinds of squash, grape and red berries,’’ Mary adds.
But even though various people of socio-economic status rely on SNAP and other programs, not all Morgantown residents have as favorable view of these benefits.
When asked whether she’s familiar with the SNAP and WIC programs, her tone changes.
“I know I have to support it…so I’m not really for it,’’ Mary says, emphasizing that people need to work because if they don’t work, they don’t eat.
According to her, too many people get funds from these programs, and she says she knows people personally that probably make more money than she does a month because they get support from several different welfare sources. However, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010, 48 percent of benefits go to children, and another 8 percent assist individuals over the age of 60.
She adds that there are some disabled individuals who cannot work and need help, but overall she is not happy about system.
But community kitchen attendee Tania, who uses SNAP, reports a different experience than Mary.
“I am on SNAP now. I signed up for it, but I didn’t get much. I am just starting out (after recently moving to Morgantown), so it hasn’t been enough to make it. This fills in the gaps until I get anything else.”
In the past Tania used SNAP, and although she says it has not changed much, there are some noticeable differences in the process.
Most people on SNAP are not trying to “pull one over” on the system, according to Tania. In order to obtain benefits, one must prove his or her income, or lack thereof, to the government; this process has become much more difficult in recent years.
“Most people just really need it to eat, and the few that don’t (cooperate with the system) ruin it for the rest of us,” says Tania.