Posted: September 28, 2017 at 3:07 am

By Rayla Claypool, Mariah Congedo, and Amy Pratt

Not knowing where your next meal is going to come from is a harsh reality for many individuals and families in the Monongalia County.

Food insecurity can be defined in different ways, but the basics are always the same. 

Food insecurity is, “not knowing where your meal is coming from even three days down the road,” said Suzanne Kenney, who works for St. Ursula Food Pantry. “Any time that you can sit at your house and wonder what you are going to be eating in a couple days time.”

Shay Petito, director of the Scott’s Run Settlement House, said food insecurity is “basically the lack of the ability to get enough food to sustain yourself.”

Approximately 16,000 people in Mon County are considered food insecure. That figure includes 14,000 adults and 2,600 children.

To put that statistic into perspective, the 14,000 food insecure adults would fill up the WVU Coliseum, but still leave the 2,600 children standing outside, explained Roark Sizemore, founder of Pantry Plus More and a West Virginia University student.

“I think it’s really easy in Morgantown to see the hospitals, to see the University, to see downtown and not think that there are people out there who are hungry,” said Sizemore.

People who typically visit the food pantries in the area are the working poor. These families work in minimum wage jobs, but are just over the limit to qualify for food stamps. However, they still need a consistent source of food and somewhere that will provide for them when they are in need.

Families face tough decisions when it comes to distributing their money for what may be most important at that specific time.

“I have families that we know are in need of food because they often have to take their money to pay for utilities, which comes before food,” Kenney said.

Pantries, however, make it easier for the families to decide how their income is going to be used.

Poverty and food insecurity often coexist and are a way of life for many in West Virginia. The cyclical nature of both traps families and individuals in a position of only ever having just enough and not always just enough for everything.

“It’s kind of all they know,” Petitio said. “It’s really, really difficult to break.”

Education is one way to break through the cycle of poverty and food insecurity. Kenney explained that oftentimes a lack of education can be generational or because young people do not have the support of their families to follow through in receiving their high school diplomas. Without this kind of base-level education, poverty and food insecurity take hold of an individual much more easily.

“It’s very difficult for someone who doesn’t have a lot of education or a lot of resources,” Petito said.

Food pantries like St. Ursula, Pantry Plus More and Scott’s Run Settlement House are an enormous help to families caught in the vise of food insecurity, but these non-profit organizations need assistance themselves.

Empty Bowls Monongalia County is one organization that provides resources and assistance to agencies that are in support of “individuals and families threatened by food insecurity.”  They distribute funds to 23 agencies in Morgantown. These agencies then distribute food to those in the community who are food insecure.

Kenney says that Empty Bowls gives them a grant each year in order for them to provide baby formula to families in need. Grants such as this are essential for food pantries and their ability to properly provide when certain items are in demand.

Jerrey Hoyt, the executive director of Empty Bowls, is no stranger to the relentless hardships plaguing food insecure individuals and families.

“Food insecurity is an issue that will always be a problem no matter what we do,” Hoyt said. “Just because we were able to feed X number of people this year doesn’t mean that we’ve solved the issue. We’ve put a band aid on the issue.”

While they cannot fix the problem, food pantries do help people break free from the cycle of food insecurity. Bill Knott is an example of this.

After a dispute over domestic violence, Knott’s wife kicked him out of his house. He was forced to live on the streets and Mon River Rail-Trail for 14 months. Knott was not always sure where he would get his next meal, but said he would eat at the free meals offered by the Salvation Army and various churches in Morgantown.

Eventually Knott got his house back in the divorce and a job ringing bells during Christmas for the Salvation Army. When the Salvation Army found out Knott was HVAC certified (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), they hired him on as a custodian and maintenance man for the building they serve meals in.

In the time between being kicked out and getting back on his feet, however, food pantries were essential to Knott. The Bartlett House kept him housed, and the Episcopal Church, Salvation Army, and other organizations kept him fed.

For many people in a situation similar to Bill Knott’s, a food pantry enables an individual to weather the leaner times until they can provide for themselves again. Petito said that the Settlement House’s main goal is to help their clients find the root cause of the food insecurity and alleviate it.

“We work really hard…to help [clients] not have to rely on us so much,” she said.