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Healthy food options are 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 delivery of produce, meat and dairy products for her mom-and-pop grocery store, Small Town Market.

“You know it’s Tuesday, but you never really know what time,” Williams said, looking past the empty wooden tables in her storefront. “It’s kind of a struggle to get things in here.”

Williams and her husband, BJ, expected to face some challenges when they started Small Town Market just as the first wave of pandemic closures hit West Virginia in 2020. But they knew Clay County had spent years struggling to keep local grocery stores alive; so when town of Clay mayor Josh Shamblin asked the Clendenin couple if they could help his residents access fruits, vegetables and protein, the Williams decided to open their store.

Tuesdays, however, highlights just how delicate and difficult it has been to operate a small market in rural West Virginia. By the time the weekly distribution truck comes, her shelves are mostly bare; Williams has had to turn away customers who beat the delivery. And every week she’s worried the delivery could be their last: she said because of Small Town Market’s small size and remote location, the distribution company has threatened to cut it from its delivery route. If that happened, her husband would have to drive two to three hours to stock the store.

“Our biggest fight is to stock and get things in here for people who are tired of microwavable TV dinners,” Williams said.

Limited access to healthy foods, especially when coupled with poverty, is a well-documented cause of diseases such as diabetes and heart illnesses. And in Clay County, where 85% of residents are within 200% of the poverty line, that missing resource is felt: data from 2018 indicates that Clay residents are more likely to have diabetes and die from cardiovascular diseases than West Virginia residents as a whole , a state where residents are already more likely to have both conditions.

State leaders’ reaction 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, Governor Jim Justice proposed another $1 million allocation to food banks, as well as creating a rainy day fund for the organizations. But while helping some, for West Virginians like Nikki Godbey and her parents, the proposal won’t change a food system that makes eating healthy impossible.

Dana Godbey (left) and Nikki Godbey (right) sit at their house in Procious. Photo by Allen Siegler

The Godbey house in Procious, along the banks of the Elk River, is six miles away from any two-lane road. Once a month, Godbey makes the trek to a large grocery store in Elkview or Charleston, which can take an hour-and-a-half roundtrip. The setup, plus inflation driving up the price of produce, makes it difficult for her family to stock fresh foods in their house.

“Vegetables don’t usually last for a month,” Godbey said.

She knows the importance of nutrition. A few months ago, his father’s leg was amputated, a complication of diabetes. But there are many weeks when having fresh produce at home is not a realistic goal.

“We all love fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Just the price of them and keeping them around when you live this far without a grocery store around has made it pretty tough.”

Little state assistance for nutrition

In West Virginia, prices and geography keep nutritious food inaccessible from many folks like the Godbeys. A US census survey from last summer estimated that more than 20% of the state’s residents reported that they sometimes or often went without food in their households over the last week, higher than any other state in the US And across West Virginia, people in large swaths of the state’s most rural areas are less likely than most to have a car and more likely to be more than 20 miles away from a grocery store, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

State leaders have said they want to help. When calling for a renewal of food bank funding, Justice said he was committed “to stop hunger in West Virginia.” Senator Joe Manchin stepped in when a Braxton County Kroger was on the precipice of closing, and the company reversed its decision. And state legislators have proposed multiple bills in this session that would increase tax credits to organizations that donate food to nonprofit programs.

But to some who think daily about hunger in West Virginia, none of these actions are enough to fix systemic issues in the state’s food supply chain and fulfill Justice’s commitment.

“We’re not actually investing in nutrition assistance here, period,” said Joshua Lohnes, the West Virginia University Food Justice Lab director.

Limited produce lies on display at Clay County’s Small Town Market. Photo by Allen Siegler

Lohnes pointed to the state’s tendency to do one-time spending initiatives, like Justice’s $1 million designation for food banks, in lieu of yearly nutrition assistance funding as one cause of the state’s high hunger rates. While the 2021 federal government gave about $770 million to West Virginia families for food assistance, there was little state money dedicated to making sure places where people can get fruits and vegetables exist.

“It’s a small investment to make to subsidize groceries,” Lohnes said. “We’re just not thinking that way.”

Lohnes said there are a variety of ways to go about making fruits, vegetables and proteins easier for rural West Virginians to get. But an idea he thinks would be a good start would be to create a state office of community food security, a bureau dedicated to making sure West Virginians from Procious to Petersburg had access to healthy foods.

If a local office identifies a place like Clay with limited food options, it could help community leaders support places like the Small Town Market and even establish a state-subsidized grocery store. Lohnes said that would not only help Clay residents get nutritious foods but also keep federal food assistance dollars circulating in the state instead of being transferred out-of-state through large grocery chains like Kroger.

While a 2022 bill to establish that office never made it to committee hearings, Lohnes believes these types of actions should have bipartisan support for their health and economic benefits.

“It’s public money that’s being generated from this grocery store,” he said. “It’s not being sucked out to some shareholders we’ve never heard of before.”

Paired with a constitutional commitment from the state Legislature to help people access nutritious foods, similar to one Maine enacted in 2021, Lohnes said these policies would meaningfully help folks like the Godbey family.

At her home in Procious, Godbey said anything that lawmakers could do to help her get fresh food would make an immediate difference in her life.

“I really hope they get something closer for us,” she said. “[A place] more convenient for us out here, farther away, to eat healthier.”