HUNTINGTON — Since 2015, the old Southern States store building on 7th Avenue has sat vacant. Over the next year, Facing Hunger Foodbank will turn the space into a teaching kitchen, on-site food pantry and additional storage and office spaces.
Facing Hunger purchased the building last September using American Rescue Plan funds that were provided by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, said Cyndi Kirkhart, the food bank’s CEO. Facing Hunger plans to begin construction in July or August with the goal of having the space operational by the end of the first quarter of next year, she said.
Two additions to Facing Hunger’s offerings that will be housed in the building will include an on-site food pantry that will be open seven days a week and a teaching kitchen, Kirkhart said.
“We’re part of the Feeding America network of food banks, and so we have had (the) opportunity to go and see other food banks,” Kirkhart said. “And so then it’s like, oh, well, they’ve got a pantry, oh, they’ve got a teaching kitchen. I mean, we started the medically indicated food box program because I went to the Anti-Hunger Policy Conference in 2015 and heard about people providing those kinds of boxes, so I came back and I knew that this would be something we really wanted to do.”
“We have partners,” Kirkhart said. “Kroger indicated interest in supporting the teaching kitchen. Aetna Better Health has talked with us about technology so that we can take the lessons that are being taught here and provide them in all of our service area. So, if folks can’t come to the class, they can see the class by TV or computer, and then they’re gonna have the same opportunity to learn.”
The additional space will also allow Facing Hunger to double its warehouse space and have more ability to store perishable items through additional cooler and freezer space, Kirkhart said.
Currently, Facing Hunger has several freezers, but only one cooler. Kirkhart said it has been a problem for the food bank in terms of space to have only one cooler because it gets a lot of fresh produce and dairy, and if it only has one cooler, that means that donations either cannot be accepted or they have to be moved very quickly. She said currently, if there is an overage of perishable items, Facing Hunger stores it on trucks and runs reefer units.
The new building will also allow Facing Hunger to expand its office space, add a volunteer center and employee break space and be able to off-load trucks to the side of the newly acquired building rather than blocking 7th Avenue, according to Kirkhart. Facing Hunger plans to make several renovations to the building, including replacing skylights and bay doors, and to add security fencing and cameras, according to Kirkhart. She said Facing Hunger is also hoping to have solar panels on the building’s roof.
“We understand that we’re a part of this bigger community, and the more improvements that we make here, those improvements will be felt by our neighbors,” Kirkhart said. “So a building that was empty is now gonna really be productive.
“All of this affords us so many opportunities to do better, and that’s always been my goal,” she said. “So, it doesn’t look like a lot now, but it’s gonna be fantastic.”
With Facing Hunger’s expansion into the building next door and its leasing of a warehouse in Mingo County, West Virginia, that it is using as a distribution center, the nonprofit will be able to accept donations of and purchase a broader variety of food and also will be able to help new people, Kirkhart said.
“Usually, without all the bad things happening, we’re serving about 130,000 people, so when the pandemic came, we started serving a lot more people,” Kirkhart said. “Inflation has continued to impact us with folks coming to mobile pantries and really needing our services, so the only way we’re really going to be able to do that is to expand.”
Facing Hunger serves individuals in 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. It serves 5,000 children a week through its backpack program, 1,200 households a week through its mobile pantries, 1,000 people a month through its medically tailored food box program and about 10,000 people a month through its Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) for seniors, Kirkhart said. Currently, Facing Hunger’s food is distributed through home deliveries and scheduled direct distributions to sites, she said.
“You can only serve as much as the food you can hold, so I would see that all of our programs would be able to expand because we’ll have the capacity to hold and store those resources,” Kirkhart said.
“While this may not end up being the food bank expansion of our dreams, it’s really going to help the dreams of the people we serve,” Kirkhart said. “We have more capacity to accept more food. We’ll have that nutritional education. We’re partnering with WVU Extension to have a part-time dietitian here. So, then they’ll be able to talk with people about, you know, better recipes and how to utilize spices and all those things that will encourage them to eat healthier. So, it’s one thing to give them the food, but if they don’t use it because they don’t know how to prepare it, that isn’t helping. So, we want to help in every possible way.”
Facing Hunger is working on securing funding for its new building in Huntington and the space it is leasing in Mingo County through grants and other funding opportunities and is expecting the efforts to be recognized in August and September of this year, Kirkhart said.
Facing Hunger signed the lease on the space in Mingo County last November, and, in partnership with Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, will be improving that building and adding freezer and cooler space and shared workspace for workforce development, Kirkhart said. She said she has also requested funding for a second chance workforce development grant to hire an additional 15 people to work at the warehouse in Mingo County and Facing Hunger’s location in Huntington.