Where There is Hunger

By: Rayla Claypool, Aishina Shaffer, Jazmine Hawes, and Alison Kaiser

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No one is immune to a bad month, six months or even a bad year.

That’s the mentality of Deb Layman, case manager at the Scott’s Run Settlement House in Osage, W.Va. The Settlement House is a resource for Monongalia County residents in need of food, baby products, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items.

Hunger is not uncommon in West Virginia, where, according to the state’s Center on Budget and Policy, the poverty rate is 18.5 percent — 3.3 percent higher than the national average.

Hungry, however, does not always mean impoverished. According to Layman, people who aren’t living in poverty can still be hungry.

“We’ve had people with relatively good incomes — incomes that I’d envy — that have come (to the Settlement House),” she said. “The wife of the couple had cancer. The husband was taking her back and forth to chemo, and their transmission blew. Okay, cancer is expensive enough; transmissions are expensive enough. Combine the two, and any couple is going to be hurting.”

The couple put their car in the shop and took cabs back and forth between chemotherapy sessions. Shortly after their car was fixed, the transmission blew again.

“They’ve got a really good income, but they have really bad luck,” Layman said. “It’s not her fault that she got cancer; it’s not their fault the transmission blew.”

“They needed food, we gave them food.”

But families like this aren’t always welcomed into food pantries with open arms. Some food pantries have an income limit for applicants. In many cases, if the family isn’t approved to receive SNAP benefits, they are also likely to sit above their local food pantry’s income limit.

Although the Settlement House has an income limit for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) commodities, it also purchases food to supplement those commodities and make this extra food available to anyone regardless of income.

“There’s not a point where we’re going to say, ‘Oh, you can’t be hungry, you make too much money,’” Layman said.

Food pantries aren’t always known for variety, but when you’re hungry, you take what you can get.

Families on SNAP must stretch their dollars throughout the month. According to the USDA, the national maximum monthly allotment of benefits that a family of four can receive is $649, roughly $162 per person. However, many families receive much less. In Mongolia County, West Virginia for example, the average SNAP allocation per household is $260,.

Stretching SNAP dollars to make it through the month can often lead to recipients purchasing foods that are high calorie and low in nutrition. Pre-packaged meals and frozen dinners can be more affordable than fresh produce or good quality meats.

Visitors can pick from a basket of snacks when they visit the Scott’s Run Settlement House. Photo by Aishina Shaffer.

Jerica Herrera, originally from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, says that Morgantown’s food options are very different than on the island she hails from. In St. Croix, she explains, fresh fruits and vegetables are a staple available for everyone, and there is a lot of variety.

However, Herrera says that she has been underwhelmed with many grocery store offerings in small-town America.

“I feel like … all of the microwavable foods (are) like fast food … I think they are unhealthy, to be honest with you. (I) try to stay away from it as much as I can. That’s not something that we love (to eat).”

Food pantries have a similar problem. Food donations often result in a lack of variety and fresh, healthy items. Instead, rows of cans with high sodium content and boxes of bleached flour products line the shelves.

Giving options to people struggling with food insecurity can make their trip to the food pantry seem less restrictive and make them feel more in control. Layman says that there are a lot of challenges involved in providing variety at food pantries, but she tries her best to ensure that her customers get something healthy and receive different items with each visit.

Layman, who received USDA commodities growing up, knows the effects of eating the same thing day-in and day-out.

“I know I ate spaghetti a lot enough as a child — I won’t eat it now. So, I don’t want to have a part in the next generation of kids that won’t eat spaghetti.”

Food insecurity is a challenge that’s made up of a lot of smaller challenges. In addition to the lack of variety or healthy options, getting food from a food pantry poses emotional difficulties. Asking for help from strangers or friends is never easy, but for some, it isn’t forever.

Layman remembers a woman who used to get food from the Scott’s Run Settlement House food pantry.

“When I first met her, her and her children were living in their car,” Layman said. “And I saw her get a house, get a job, and I just looked at her, and it’s like wow…you are not the same person that you were nine months ago.”

Food pantries like the Scott’s Run Settlement House act like a bridge. It’s a way to help food insecure individuals get to food security, so they don’t have to ask for help.

The greatest gift a food pantry can give is the ability for people to become to self-sufficient, but for some families, emergency food services aren’t temporary. Although some get to a point where they can stand on their own, that isn’t the case for others who use it as a regular part of their food sourcing strategy. The use of emergency food services like food pantries are on the rise and some people have been going to them for several years.