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Home » Healthy food options limited for many rural WV communities
CLAY – On a recent weekday, Sarah Williams was doing what she does most Tuesday mornings: waiting for a weekly shipment of produce, meat and dairy for her mom and pop grocery store, Small Town Market.
“You know it’s Tuesday, but you never know exactly what time it is,” Williams said, glancing past the empty wooden tables in her storefront. “It’s quite a struggle to get things in here.”
Williams and her husband BJ anticipated some challenges when they started Small Town Market just as the first wave of pandemic closures hit West Virginia in 2020. However, they knew that Clay County had struggled for years to keep local grocery stores alive. When Clay City Mayor Josh Shamblin asked the Clendenins if they could make fruit, vegetables and protein easier for residents to access, the Williams decided to open their store.
However, Tuesdays show how delicate and difficult it was to run a small market in rural West Virginia. By the time the weekly delivery truck arrives, their shelves are mostly empty; Williams had to turn away customers who undercut the delivery. And every week she worries the delivery could be her last: She said that due to Small Town Market’s small size and remote location, the distribution company has threatened to remove it from its delivery route. In this case, her husband would have to drive two to three hours to fill up the store.
“Our biggest struggle is storing and bringing things here for people who are tired of microwave cooking,” Williams said.
Limited access to healthy food, especially when coupled with poverty, is a well-documented cause of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. And in Clay County, where 85% of residents live within 200% of the poverty line, that missing resource is palpable: 2018 data shows that Clay residents are more likely to have diabetes and die from cardiovascular disease than residents of West Virginia as a whole, a state where residents are already more likely to have both conditions.
The response from world leaders to food access has been to pour more money into the state’s food banks. In his State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Jim Justice proposed providing an additional $1 million to food banks and creating a rainy day fund for the organizations. But while the proposal is helpful for some, for West Virginians like Nikki Godbey and her parents, it won’t change a nutritional system that makes healthy eating implausible.
Dana Godbey (left) and Nikki Godbey (right) sit at their home in Procious. Photo by Allen Siegler
The Godbey house in Procious on the banks of the Elk River is six miles from any dual carriageway. Once a month, Godbey makes the trip to major grocery stores in Elkview or Charleston, which can take an hour and a half round trip. The facility and inflation, which drives up the prices of produce, make it difficult for her family to stock fresh groceries in their home.
“Vegetables don’t usually last a month,” Godbey said.
She knows the importance of nutrition. Her father’s leg was amputated a few months ago, a complication of his diabetes. But there are many weeks when having fresh produce in the house is not a realistic goal.
“We all love fruits and vegetables,” she says. “The price alone and storage when you live so far without a grocery store nearby made it quite difficult.”
Little government aid for food
In West Virginia, prices and geography keep nutritious food out of reach for many people like the Godbeys. A U.S. census last summer estimated that more than 20% of the state’s residents reported going sometimes or often without food in their households in the past week, more than any other state in the U.S. and throughout the West Virginia, people overall According to the US Department of Agriculture, much of the state’s rural areas are less likely to have a car than most and are more likely to be more than 20 miles from a grocery store.
Heads of state have said they want to help. When Justice called for a renewal of food bank funding, he said he was determined to “stop hunger in West Virginia.” Senator Joe Manchin stepped in when a Braxton County Kroger was about to close and the company reversed its decision. And state legislators in this session proposed several bills that would increase tax credits for organizations that donate food to charitable programs.
But for some who think about hunger in West Virginia daily, none of these measures are enough to fix systemic problems in the state’s food supply chain and meet Justice’s obligation.
“We don’t really invest in food assistance here, period,” said Joshua Lohnes, director of West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab.
Limited produce is on display at Clay County’s Small Town Market. Photo by Allen Siegler
Lohnes pointed to the state’s tendency to run one-off spending initiatives like Justice’s $1 million designation for food banks in lieu of annual funding for food assistance as a cause of the state’s high rates of hunger. While the federal government provided about $770 million in food aid to families in West Virginia in 2021, there has been little government money to ensure there are places where people can get fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a small investment to subsidize food,” said Lohnes. “We just don’t think that way.”
Lohnes said there are a variety of ways to make fruit, vegetables and protein easier for rural West Virginians. But one idea he thinks would be a good start would be to create a state Bureau of Community Food Security, an office dedicated to ensuring West Virginians from Procious to Petersburg have access to healthy food.
When a local office identifies a place like Clay with limited dining options, it could help community leaders support places like Small Town Market and even open a state-subsidized grocery store. Lohnes said that not only would this help Clay residents get nutritious food, but it would keep federal food aid dollars circulating around the state instead of being channeled overseas through big grocery chains like Kroger.
While a 2022 bill to create this office never made it to committee hearings, Lohnes believes these types of measures should have bipartisan support for their health and economic benefits.
“It’s public money generated by this grocery store,” he said. “It’s not sucked out to a shareholder we’ve never heard of before.”
Coupled with a constitutional requirement for state legislatures to make it easier for people to access nutritious food, similar to one enacted in Maine in 2021, Lohnes said those guidelines would meaningfully help people like the Godbey family.
At her home in Procious, Godbey said that anything the legislature could do to help her get fresh groceries would make an immediate difference in her life.
“I really hope they bring us a little closer,” she said. “[A place] more convenient for us out here, farther away for us to eat healthier.”