Partners in Appalachia adapt as need grows

MCC staff in Kentucky, West Virginia distribute food with new safety practices as job losses hit region hard

Apr 27, 2020 by and

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Sharing With Appalachian People staff continue supporting local partners as they distribute food in Kentucky and West Virginia, but the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way they get food to the people who need it most.

Known best for coordinating volunteer groups to repair homes, SWAP is a Mennonite Central Committee program. From SWAP’s stock of construction supplies, leaders are donating face masks and gloves to first responders.

MCC Great Lakes staff members Charlene Barr, front, and Sarah Geiser sort canned goods at Christ’s Hands food pantry in Harlan, Ky. — Jennifer Steiner/MCC

MCC Great Lakes staff members Charlene Barr, front, and Sarah Geiser sort canned goods at Christ’s Hands food pantry in Harlan, Ky. — Jennifer Steiner/MCC

Program leaders also partner with organizations in food programs. In an area where people’s economic well-being is already uncertain, COVID-19 is likely to make it worse.

“In our county, there are already a lot of people without jobs who rely on food pantries,” said Peg Martin, SWAP location co­or­dinator in Kimball, W.Va. “[COVID-19] makes life in general that much harder where it is already difficult.”

She and her husband, Lee, regularly join the efforts of Houston United Methodist Church in Kimball and Northfork United Methodist Church to distribute food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture each month.

To get it to churches, food is relayed over a 140-mile journey in West Virginia. A food bank in Huntington typically brings the food as far as Welch, where Lee Martin helps haul it back to Northfork UMC. Once the food is sorted and boxed, Peg helps register recipients while Lee carries food boxes to vehicles.

With up to 160 households receiving portions of three to six tons of food each month, churches are adjusting distribution methods to do so safely with COVID-19 restrictions. In the past month, food was divided into boxes on church pews, and individuals scheduled appointments 15 minutes apart to pick up boxes. It took several days rather than the typical three hours.

“It was a challenge to balance the concerns about spreading the virus with the very real need for food by many,” said Peg Martin, who worked with leaders to plan the new distribution process.

Need will increase

In Harlan, Ky., SWAP location coordinators Pete and Stephanie Broersma face similar challenges as they support Christ’s Hands, a partner organization providing food, shelter and other assistance.

“The closure of nonessential workplaces is heavily hitting our area,” Stephanie Broersma said. “It remains to be seen exactly what the future holds, but we expect the need will increase.”

Christ’s Hands not only serves as a food pantry for the local Harlan community but is also a distribution hub for trucks of food from Midwest Food Bank for other pantries in the tri-county area. Several pantries are not able to operate as staff follow guidelines for safe operations.

In addition to the monthly distribution of 200 food boxes and emergency food provisions, Christ’s Hands serves a hot eve­ning meal in their soup kitchen Monday through Friday for more than 100 area residents. The meals sometimes include canned meat from MCC.

About half of the meals are delivered by volunteers to homebound people, while other recipients usually eat together in the dining room. With social gathering restrictions, Christ’s Hands shifted those to takeout boxes.

Broersma regularly spends Tuesdays at the soup kitchen helping prepare the evening meal. Christ’s Hands is working to reduce the number of people working together at one time in all aspects of their ministry.

Despite new obstacles in reaching people who need assistance, SWAP staff continue to see hope.

“We’re in the midst of the storm,” Broersma said. “It’s hard to know what the future holds, but Appalachia is very resilient.”

Peg Martin finds encouragement in the coming of spring.

“The trees are budding, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, reminding us of new life,” she said. “We have witnessed God working and providing in the past and trust that he will continue to do so.”


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