The warehouse at Mountaineer Food Bank was stacked high with pallets of food.
Chad Morrison, who oversees the organization, described it as an “excess of food” for much of 2019. The overstock was thanks, in part, to a Trump trade program that bulked up federal food items flowing to food banks.
But around West Virginia, isolated and rural food banks struggled to keep their shelves stocked amid the growing need. More people were going hungry because of a lack of jobs and shuttered grocery stores, pantry organizers said.
The disconnect, according to Morrison, was largely due to a lack of transportation.
Many food charities in the state, often times run by aging volunteers with thin monetary donations, don’t own or have access to large, refrigerated trucks to pick up food from Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway.
Refrigerated trucks or vans can cost $50,000 and up. The food bank requires some type of refrigeration if the pantry is more than 30 minutes away.
There are currently no state dollars allocated to the more than 500 food relief agencies around West Virginia that are lifelines for 300,000 people a month.
Food pantries in the state, on average, operate on a budget of less than $1,300 a month to pay for food, deliveries and more, according to research from the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University.
Some pantries have no operating budget at all.
Volunteers are often hauling food from food banks or other donation ports — like Walmart and grocers donating past sell date goods — in their own vehicles.
“The majority of our agencies work with volunteers and volunteer vehicles,” Morrison said. Mountaineer Food Bank serves 48 counties in the state.
“About 20 percent have an enclosed trailer they can use for storage that can haul a good amount of food, maybe six pallets. But the majority of them are using private vehicles and cargo vans that really limit what they can do at one time.”
Pantries reliant on truck deliveries from Mountain Food Bank often pay a delivery fee, eating into their food purchasing budgets and limiting what they can take to feed their communities.
The food bank, a nonprofit, charges a delivery fee on donated items to offset its own storage and transportation costs, according to Morrison.
‘A truck is a big dream’
Rebecca Campbell, who oversees the Harvest House Food Pantry at the Pocahontas County Family Resource Network, uses her own car to pick up a few boxes of donated food from a local grocer.
Around 600 to 700 people — typically single moms with children and elderly persons — visit the rural pantry a month, she said.
There’s a lack of jobs in the area as Snowshoe Ski Resort is the largest local employer, Campbell explained. When the snow season is cut short or lackluster, more people show up at the pantry in need of food.
The pantry, in Marlinton, has been steadily funded by grants, but even its healthy budget doesn’t have funds to purchase a refrigerated vehicle to pick up food.
Campbell mainly relied on regular food deliveries from Mountaineer Food Bank — things like fresh fruit, rice, potatoes and peanut butter — to stock the pantry shelves.
She paid a $500 delivery fee for a $2,000 food order from the food bank.
“If it wasn’t for Mountaineer Food Bank, we wouldn’t have a food pantry. There would be no way for us to go and pick up food on a regular basis and help our families,” Campbell said.
“A truck is a big dream right now,” she added.
The pantry recently secured additional grant funding and added a staff person, but Campbell said she’s leery about spending money on a refrigerated vehicle.
“I would rather be able to feed people and continue to feed people the way I am,” she said.
In Wyoming County, Arnold Simonse and his wife run the Itmann Food Pantry, which serves about 500 families a month out of Mullens.
“We’re dealing with the hardcore poor,” he said, noting the closure of nearby Pinnacle Mine, in 2018, that put hundreds of miners out of work. “The problem down here is certainly not laziness, but it’s that these people feel hopeless.”
The pantry relies on in-state and out-of-state donations for its $85,000 annual budget, he said, and some of that money goes to the Mountaineer Food Bank delivery fee because he doesn’t have a refrigerated truck.
“I could get a grant to get a truck, but the insurance for it would put me out of business,” Simonse said.
“Fundraising is getting more and more difficult,” he added.
There have been times the Facing Hunger Food Bank, in Huntington, had excess food they were trying to move, but Simonse, 81, explained that by the time he could rent a truck and get there, the food would be gone.
He’d also like a large van or truck to haul furniture and household goods — things his pantry provides community members for free.
“I could go and pick it up,” he said.
McKinley’s legislation aims to help
Hunger relief organizations could get a financial boost for delivery trucks thanks to a piece of federal legislation, sponsored, in part, by Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.
The bipartisan Food Recovery Transportation Act, introduced in September, would establish a grant program through the Department of Agriculture to give hunger relief organizations funds to purchase or lease vehicles to pick up donated food.
The money could also be used to help reimburse volunteers for travel costs related to picking up and delivering donated goods.
McKinley said in a news release that a trip to Mountaineer Food Bank inspired the legislation.
“While there, I was told that their number one issue is transporting donated food,” he said. “The funds from these grants can help to not only feed those in need but also prevent food from being wasted.”
Volunteer pantries have limits
But would a fleet of food trucks solve the pantries’ stocking troubles?
Josh Lohnes, food policy research director at West Virginia University, said the larger, more pressing issue is the state’s reliance on mainly elderly volunteers and wavering donations to feed thousands of West Virginians who visit food charities each month.
He explained that along with the state’s generally older population, younger generations are less inclined to volunteer at food pantries because they’d rather engage in advocacy work in other areas.
That leaves elderly persons, who are typically volunteers, with the work of running pantries — ordering, stocking, driving and more. Only 25 percent of the state’s food pantries employ a paid staff member, according to research from West Virginia Food Link.
“It’s an interesting dilemma for food banks that have an excess food but not an adequate workforce to distribute that food,” Lohnes said.
“Driving an hour to Gassaway to pick up food costs money. You need a truck and someone to drive a truck. That’s a bottleneck in the system.”
The breakdown that occurs between donated food and pantry shelves, Lohnes said, is “ultimately an infrastructure and labor problem.”
Lohnes and others who work on addressing food insecurity issues plan to push state lawmakers in 2020 to allocate state funds to food issues.
Additionally, he wants to work with local-level officials to invest monetarily in their neighborhood food pantry.
The money would enable pantries to pay someone to run the pantry who can healthily manage daily upkeep, and ordering and arranging deliveries.
“We are very much dependent in West Virginia on poor churches to raise money and move federal food,” he said.
“We need to pay people for feeding our neighbors.”