Community members in Charleston’s West Side get creative to fight food insecurity

In response to the shuttering of traditional grocery stores, corporations have littered the Capitol city with dollar stores. Processed foods are plentiful in the community. Finding a head of lettuce, however, can require taking two buses and a 15-minute walk each way.

By Joe Severino, Black By God: The West Virginian

Larry Moore didn’t live in a food desert when he was a kid. 

Charleston’s West Side was home to at least three grocery stores and some corner markets. There was even a grocery store in North Charleston, which is just up the road from Moore – who has served his home neighborhood on Charleston City Council for the past two years.

The issue of food insecurity in Charleston is well-known. Between North Charleston, the East End and West Side, residents share the West Side Kroger and the Piggly Wiggly off Bigley Avenue.

One of Moore’s foremost issues as a community leader is getting folks access to fresh fruits and vegetables. For the community’s many challenges, Moore believes that reasonable access to healthy foods can help curb the problems resulting from not eating well – like diabetes and heart disease. 

In response to the shuttering of traditional grocery stores, corporations have littered Charleston with dollar stores. Processed foods are plentiful in the community. Finding a head of lettuce, however, can require taking two buses and a 15-minute walk each way.

“We went from having a plethora of grocery stores to having one,” said Moore. “Now, we have a bunch of Dollar Generals and Family Dollars popping up, but that’s not helping us get healthy foods.”

Walking through the scorching July heat across the Five Corners intersection on the West Side, Bishop Robert Haley of A More Excellent Way Life Center Church is already worried about the winter. In recent years, Haley’s church has held monthly food giveaways for the community, sending 250 to 300 boxes out the door each go-around.

During the June giveaway, Haley said they ran out of food for people. This has happened “maybe once or twice” before.

“Things are getting scarce,” said Haley. “The need is growing. We have lines basically down the street.”

A More Excellent Way now has their own small building to store and distribute donated goods. Health Rite, the free health clinic that moved in across the street from the church, gave Haley the keys to a neat, clean and air-conditioned building adjacent from the clinic. Health Rite’s generosity has done wonders for their food giveaways, Haley said. Saturday nights used to be for staying late and cleaning the main room following the popular giveaways in preparation for Sunday morning service. 

But now there is less product coming in, Haley said. Food banks nationwide are experiencing declining shipments. For a small operation like A More Excellent Way, their shipments typically come from larger food banks – like Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway. These larger operations in turn are receiving less from their sources.

Meanwhile, everyday community members are stuck making up the difference. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in May that food prices were 6.7% higher than they were one year prior. That number is still expected to climb due to inflation.

While he is nervous about the holiday and winter months, which typically is the time period where the most need is reported, Haley said he’s confident that his team, and his neighborhood, will meet that need. 

“I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to do it, but somehow, we’re going to make it happen,” Haley said.

Bishop Robert Haley shows an empty freezer at A More Excellent Way’s food distribution office. Photo by Joe Severino, Black By God: The West Virginian.

The best of urban agriculture 

Keep Your Faith Corporation, a small community-based service organization, operates a small farm on a previously empty, overgrown lot on Delaware Avenue on the West Side. Keep Your Faith CEO Dural Miller said he believes turning these empty lots – which are plentiful throughout the West Side, East End and North Charleston – into a citywide agricultural network is a major key to supplying fresh foods to the neighborhood. These lots also can provide employment and volunteer opportunities for people in the community, Miller said. 

Miller said he wants to fix some of these lots up so that they can grow throughout the winter, harvesting vegetables like potatoes and carrots underground, so Keep Your Faith can more easily supply vegetables year-round.

On a recent Friday, Miller, Moore and the Keep Your Faith team held a popup farmer’s market in Piedmont Elementary School’s cafeteria on the East End, where classes begin Monday for students. Piedmont is the only school in the city operating on a year-round basis, and have no traditional summer break. The team distributed fresh produce, seeds, and talked to families about their food system development program.

Miller credits the growth of Keep Your Faith’s food-sharing mission to these pop-up markets.

“We started in the elementary schools,” Miller said. 

Keep Your Faith has also been working with West Virginia University’s Extension Service to create recipe cards to go along with their giveaways. He said giving out food is one thing, but for people who’ve never had consistent access to fresh vegetables, cooking them can be another challenge. 

One huge development in the past year is the news that a locally-owned grocery store is coming to the West Side. Partnering with the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, Keep Your Faith secured American Rescue Plan funds through the city to open a small store. Miller said this will be a massive gain in the community, especially given the current produce prices at chain grocery stores – Miller said he recently forked over $2.65 for a single tomato.

There is still a lot of work to do this year, Miller said. Juggling this many responsibilities can be taxing, and the thought of a hungry winter comes to his mind as well. But because of the work done by organizations like Keep Your Faith, Miller, similarly to Haley, believes in his team and their mission.

“I think we will make it better than it could be,” Miller said. “It could be worse if we don’t start doing stuff like we’re doing now.”

Keep Your Faith team members host a popup farmers market at Piedmont Elementary in Charleston’s East End. Photo by Joe Severino, Black By God: The West Virginian.

The policy angle 

Congress has now scrapped nearly all the social safety net protections given to U.S. citizens during the Covid-19 pandemic. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) payments, formerly known as food stamps, have returned to pre-pandemic levels – even though average grocery prices are higher now than at any point of the pandemic.

Bishop Haley consistently hears this from the people he serves.

“Since government benefits were cut back, our demand is up,” Haley said. “We had people going from $300 in food stamps to $60 [per month]. 

Seth DiStefano, with the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, said the end of the National Health Emergency has brought great uncertainty to many families – and not just those that are low-income. Medicine and food are again rationed by families – a short-term fix that increases the likelihood of long-term health complications. 

In February, more than 175,000 West Virginia households qualified for SNAP payments, according to data from the Center. After the health emergency expired in March, about 164,500 households now qualify. The number continues to drop, as just over 162,000 households qualified in May.

DiStefano said that West Virginia’s Legislature is to blame for much of the problems with SNAP payments. While it’s a federal program, Republican state lawmakers in recent years have added work requirements to achieve payments, as well as bogging families down with unceasing paperwork.

“It doesn’t have to be as hard as West Virginia makes it to apply for food assistance,” DiStefano said. “This is a policy that’s very bureaucratic, and just the paperwork in general is what gets people to fall through the cracks.”

DiStefano said the movement to emphasize local ownership, and using public funds to help launch fresh food networks off the ground in Charleston, is a very positive development. He said Republicans in the Legislature could make a huge impact across the state if they emphasized food insecurity during their 2024 session. However, there’s not much hope among the knowers of this Legislature; in fact, it’s typically the opposite. 

“Every year at the legislature, there’s always a handful of bills that make it more difficult to either apply for or to hold on to food assistance. That stuff just needs to stop,” he said.

Moore said that the voices of his constituents are typically drowned out, especially by people in positions of power. Historically, this has led to decreased social and political activism, even as the quality of life diminishes around them.

“Sometimes a lot of our people in my neighborhood – we feel defeated, or we feel like we’re not heard. So a lot of us sometimes I think, give up and kind of just go with the flow,” he said.

But Moore said he is glad that trend has been reversing for a while now in his Ward. Food security is just one of many issues facing residents of Charleston, but Moore said they are on a  positive track with this one.

“As the community, as people, we just have to keep fighting,” he said.

Click here to read more stories from Black By God: The West Virginian.

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