SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — Children throughout our region are at risk of going hungry or doing without basic needs. West Virginia now leads the nation with the highest rate of child poverty as a staggering number of West Virginia children struggle.
“I actually always thought that people who didn’t have enough could reach out and there would be someone that would help them. I didn’t realize that wasn’t true,” said Joni Bailey, Director of Operations for the Food SHACK, a program that delivers meals to children in low-income communities in the Kanawha Valley. She spends most of her afternoons behind the wheel driving to local neighborhoods. The sound of her truck horn tells eager children it is time to come outside and pick up a paper bag packed with food.
The Food SHACK has provided over 200,000 meals over the last 3 years.
“When I first started doing this in 2021, whatever location I went to, I usually gave about 50 meals,” Bailey said. “Today I’ve packed 150 and I’ll go home with none.”
In West Virginia, 25% of children live in poverty, which equals over 86,000 kids. The trend is largely attributed to the aftermath of the pandemic. While stimulus checks and boosted SNAP benefits helped during the height of COVID-19, those resources have since dried up. The combined with the growing costs in all aspects of daily life, have many families feeling the squeeze.
“The people in this area know how to get the support they need but it is just not enough. It is not people living on the streets. It is people who have a home. They go to work, they come home but they still don’t have enough food to supply their family,” Bailey said. “It is definitely the same people that you could be working beside them, and you don’t know their need.”
It is not just children going without food. In many cases, it means their family can’t afford basic essentials.
“It is something that is tragic, right,” said Kerri Cooper, United Way, Community Impact Director. “We want our next generation to be great, but they are living in poverty.”
The United Way of Central WV has seen a spike in young people needing resources through the WV 211 Hotline and they are getting more referrals from area schools.
“They don’t tell Mom that their backpack is broken because that may mean that the lights are not on. They don’t say ‘Hey my shoes are killing my feet’ because I may not have water, or my little brother needs shoes more than I need shoes, whatever that looks like. Kids deal with things every day. They are resilient. They’ll pull through. But we have to give them a chance to pull through,” Cooper said.
The United Way’s Equal Footing Shoe Fund is busier than normal. They are expecting a busier holiday season as well.
“You don’t know you know that child, but you know that child,” Cooper said. “The statistics are too large for us not to know them. This is West Virginia, everyone knows everyone. You know this child. You have to think through the glasses of someone else. You have to see that today it is not me, but it could be. Today it is my neighbor or my co-worker’s kid.”
The Union Mission is busy collecting coats for kids this winter. Their coat drive isn’t new, but they are expecting to see more families this you who are unable to afford the cost of appropriate clothing to keep their kids warm. Right now, they are feeding 275 children a month directly as well as supplying area food pantries. The Union Mission feeds between 300 and 500 families for Thanksgiving.
This year even the leaders of long-standing charities are shaken by what is happening in their communities.
“I have kids and I can’t imagine kids coming home from school or having a weekend where they are wondering where their next meal is coming from,” said Jason Quintrell, CEO, of Union Mission. “I have seen that on the rise and unfortunately, it is definitely a sad, sad situation. But we are trying to do what we can to help that.”
As she visits neighborhoods in the Food SHACK truck and recognizes the faces of children she sees over and over, Joni Bailey is hopeful things eventually get better for kids in the Mountain State. Until then she is thankful to be able to offer hope and nourishment for children whose families are struggling without a light at the end of the tunnel.
“This is the best thing I have ever done in my life. It is the most rewarding thing a person can do to fill the need. I have never known a life where I go hungry,” Bailey said.