Helping hands work to help residents who struggle with food insecurity on the West Side
By Hope Talbert, Jed Sammons, Miles O'Reilly and Tara Suter
The Save A Lot on Charleston’s West Side sits vacant and boarded. The grocery store closed down in December 2019 leaving many without access to local groceries. Photo by Tara Suter
In the feverish heat of late spring, hundreds of people stand outside of the A More Excellent Way Life Center Church, braving the intense humidity just for the chance at something many take for granted – food.
This sight is not uncommon, men, women and children, black and white, young and old all forming lines that wrap around the large salmon-colored brick building and down Delaware Avenue. Once a month, rain or shine, droves of people turn up to Bishop Robert Haley’s church in hopes of getting their hands on some basic food-staples before they run out.
This church is one of the few helpers when it comes to food security on the West Side, a neighborhood in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia and its most populous city.
With its population of 5,700 people, the West Side is a food desert, an area in which there is no — or limited — access to food that is both affordable and healthy.
“It’s expensive to take care of your body,” -Cresia Davis.
“It’s expensive to take care of your body,” said Cresia Davis. “You eat Wendy’s because it’s right here. You can walk there.”
Although there are dollar stores such as the Dollar General or Family Dollar just up the road from Haley’s church, they mainly sell processed or frozen foods. There is one grocery store that carries fresh produce, a Kroger, but for many West Side residents, who depend on public transportation or the good will of their neighbors for a ride, it is often unreachable.
This Kroger is actually closer to the more affluent East End, situated just three blocks away from the Elk river, which separates the two communities not only by geography but by wealth and available services.
The West Side did have another grocery store, a Save A Lot, but it closed down abruptly on Dec. 28, 2019, making access to nutrient-dense foods like meats or fresh vegetables extremely limited for locals. The building remains, still bearing the company’s logo, although every window and door of the supermarket has been boarded up with sheets of plywood.
Some residents even struggle to access their already limited options.
There is a lot of foot traffic in the West Side. Many people are forced to walk long distances, sometimes over two miles, just to purchase their groceries at the Kroger.
For those with cars, gas prices are often too high to justify driving to the store. The elderly or those with mobility issues rely on transportation resources, like senior services or the limited public transport that runs through the area.
It is not uncommon to see wheelchair users making their way down Virginia Street with paper bags of non-perishable goods seated on their laps on days when the local mobile food pantry, run by Manna Meals, visits the West Side.
“Yes, these people are right here. And yes, they have walkers or wheelchairs. But how about those who have a cane and they can’t get to the stores to do their shopping?” asked Michelle Smith, a Charleston native who moved to the West Side over a decade ago.
Her own paper bags of pantry goods sit at her flip-flop clad feet as she watches her elderly and mobility imparied community members arrive at the food pantry and waits for her ride in the sweltering heat of the mid-May evening.
Rideshare apps, such as Uber or Lyft, can also be very expensive.
“We have some seniors that’s trying to decide whether I eat or whether I get my medicine,” -Bishop Robert Haley
“We have some seniors that’s trying to decide whether I eat or whether I get my medicine,” said Haley, wringing his hands over the cluttered, dark stained wooden desk he’s seated behind.
Many community members noticed how food insecurity has shaped their neighborhood over time, like Tina Beatty, a West Side resident for 35 years and Apostle at both King of Glory International Ministries and Lion of Judah International Ministries. At her food banks, meal giveaways or even sermons, she has noticed the extent to which insecurity affects her neighbors.
“It’s not just for the homeless, it’s for people that live in the community. We’ll be serving, we’ll be giving away food, and they come, and they sit and they eat with us and fellowship with us,” Beatty said, her silver earrings swinging as she shakes her head and gestures widely at the neighborhood around her.
There are countless organizations and charities—such as community gardens or mobile soup kitchens—that aim to help residents overcome food insecurity,
Step by Step, a local after school program, opened its family resource center on April 22. The small teal colored resource center includes a food pantry, open to community members who are struggling with food insecurity, and providing the West side with access to the shelves of non-perishable items, clothes and hygiene products lining the cheerfully painted walls of the building.
“We’re open on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” said Katie Bonham, director of the Step by Step family resource center. “Within that four hour span on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we probably serve, right now, 10 to 15 people or families. But each week that number is growing.”
Step by Step implemented a grocery store model for their location, in which community members can fill up one grocery bag with items of their choice.
“It’s not on a grand scale yet. We would like to make it bigger, (we) just opened maybe two, three weeks ago,” Bonham said. “We just got our fridge in… we’d like to get some fresh produce in, in a few weeks.”
The grocery store model seems to be a preferred system among other community organizations in the West Side.
Keep Your Faith Corporation is working on opening up a small, local grocery store that can provide fresh produce. The food at KYFC’s grocery store – Miss Ruby’s – will not be free.
According to Miller, the grocery store will have a wider selection of more affordable options and will accept SNAP Stretch, a food stamp program that allows for an increase in the original SNAP benefits when used at pre-approved small-scale grocers or local farmers markets.
“In grocery stores like Miss Ruby’s, we’re able to double those benefits and triple those benefits even when you use snap stretch,” said Alecia Allen, the clinical director for KYFC and West Side native.
For Allen, the issues she sees in the area are personal.
“I’m from Charleston, grew up in low socioeconomic status community myself, and my family is still here and my friends are still here, and so I know how that impacts, directly impacts families and, you know, their access to foods,” said Allen, who’s face lights up with pride as she speaks about helping improve the community she was raised in.
According to Allen, the programs she is seeing pop up in the West Side today would have greatly helped her and her family when growing up.
Other groups and organizations have decided to hold larger food pantry events to hand out substantial quantities of food to community members.
Manna Meal, a daily soup kitchen, operates out of St. John’s Episcopal Church. But its location on Charleston’s East End, two or more miles from some portions of the West Side, makes it hard for community members living in that area to get to the facility.
To overcome the distance issue, Manna Meal started a mobile food pantry in 2021, packing up bags of food items, like canned goods and sandwiches, and driving them over to the location of the old Save A Lot on the West Side, bringing the resources to those in need.
The once monthly mobile food pantry has become an almost weekly occurrence as the number of people utilizing it continues to rise.
“We park in a central location. We post that on social media and get the dates out,” Amy Wolfe, the executive director of Manna Meal said, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder. “People come to us.”-
Manna Meal mobile food pantry workers set up the pantry in the old Save A Lot parking lot on May 19. The workers had packed four vehicles with bags of food to hand out at the pantry. Photo by Jed Sammons
The event is seemingly over in the blink of an eye as community members come from every direction to get a bag of non-perishable goods. Even on the most torrid days, when the temperature breaks 90 degrees, and the sun is beating down on the car park of the closed Save A Lot, the three vehicles worth of bags from Manna Meal are gone within twenty minutes.
Similarly, A More Excellent Way Life Center Church’s monthly food pantry tries to hand out bulk food supplies to the West Side’s food insecure.
Large cardboard boxes full of food items, including bread, meat and gallons of milk, are distributed at the food pantry. The church handed out 310 boxes of food in April, a number Haley expects will continue to rise.
“I think as the summer goes, and as time goes on (and) the economy worsens, I think we’re going to be close to 400 to 500 boxes,” Haley said. “People are just in that dire need right now.”
Others are trying to fill the need by growing food for the community. Throughout the West Side, there are a few private and community gardens tended by the locals that produce fresh produce.
Kyra Bowen, an urban agriculture extension associate with West Virginia State University, works at the Rebecca Street Urban Farm on the West Side as a liaison between the school and the farm’s founder.
Bowen’s work involves growing, donating and educating others about planting one’s own fresh food. She said “hundreds” of pounds of the food she grew last year got distributed to residents of the West Side.
“All I ever truly want to do is feed people. I want to grow food,” Bowen said, smiling as she gestures to the full greenhouse surrounding her. “And that’s my job now.”
The farm, founded by Thomas Toliver Sr., is a community space where anyone can come and pick a plot of land or raised bed to plant greenery like fresh fruits and vegetables.
As is the case with Asmael Saifo, a community member with a plot at the Rebecca Street Urban Farm. Saifo, who is originally from Syria, grows various produce.
“We harvest every other day, almost, squash, zucchini, tomatoes and a lot of green leaves,” said Saifo as he strolled around the raised beds of his garden plot.
Asmael Saifo wheels his gardening tools around his plot at the Rebecca Street Urban Farm on May 18. Saifo had been clearing out weeds and tilling the soil to prepare it for planting more produce. Photo by Jed Sammons
According to Saifo, his harvest from the community garden is more than he needs, and he is happy to donate extras to local food pantries and organizations, like Manna Meal.
Outside of Saifo’s donation to Manna Meal, Toliver said the farm donated 60 pounds of food last harvest season to United Way, a nonprofit group whose mission is to fight poverty using multiple methods like adult job training and food pantries.
On the other side of the West Side, Carolyn Young started her own garden on an empty plot of land across the street from her house. She said her idea for the garden came from a want to beautify her section of the community and grow fresh produce for those that need it.
“My goal, also with all the other things, is to literally have plants and go to neighbors who may need them,” -Carolyn Young
“My goal, also with all the other things, is to literally have plants and go to neighbors who may need them,” Young said while taking a break from tilling the soil in her garden.“Let me plant some food, let me help you take care of it.”
Young said she is a firm believer that more gardens in the community, like hers, could make a difference fighting food insecurity.
“We have the resources. We have the people, and we have the land to do it,” she said.
Food insecurity in the West side is an ongoing issue, and many community members feel the situation will get worse before it gets better.
“I think as of right now it’s going to get worse,” said Bishop Haley. “As gas prices rise, as the economy goes haywire, we see that food prices are rising, people are not going to be able to take care of themselves or their family,”
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization the average price for groceries consisting of all five food groups, cereal, dairy, sugar, meat and vegetables, went up 110 points on the food price index from 2019 to April of 2022. Coupled with rising gas prices the general cost of living is on the rise for Americans, putting at-risk communities, like the West Side, in a difficult position.
On top of this, the West Side is just now seeing the true economic effects of the COVID pandemic, said Wolfe.
“I think it is going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately, but there are so many organizations willing to step up and do whatever we need to do to make sure that people aren’t going hungry in our community,” Wolfe said.