Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads.
No one has done more to shape West Virginia’s mythology than the late John Denver. Today, the state’s “country roads” that the wide-grinned troubadour may have ambled down are largely interstates paid for by the American taxpayer and leveraged by the late Senator Robert C. Byrd, a master in his day of bringing home the bacon. To cruise at 65 miles per hour along one of these endlessly curving expanses of concrete and pavement, all of which seem to bear the senator’s name, is a rare driving experience. The sensation is one of maneuvering a Jetson’s TV aerocar from one mountainside to the next, soaring across precipitously steep gorges and hollows (pronounced “hollas” in these parts). Swerving from right to left and immediately back again, the chance to enjoy “almost heaven[ly]” scenery is sometimes denied by the concentration required to set up the next turn.
But the bacon of days gone by has lost its sizzle; in fact, past decades have not been kind to West Virginians. As the only state to lose a significant number of people in last US Census, those “country roads” are not taking their inhabitants “home.” Too frequently, they are conveying them out of state in search of more rewarding opportunities. Yes, the twisting by-ways bring in tourists who inhale the state’s breathtaking beauty and imbibe a bourgeoning outdoor recreation scene, but they also transport people in from far away who have succumbed to drug addiction and seek recovery in a place known as the epicenter of the nation’s opioid crisis. Just as the Sackler family is paying out billions for hooking millions on opioids, the crisis has spawned a large sub-industry of treatment and recovery services. As a result, John Denver’s “mountain mama” is not the rich warbling voice of the coal miner’s daughter, but the plaintive chorus of thousands of West Virginia grandmas forced into a second round of parenting. Called by their big hearts and a sober sense of duty, grandparents back in the hollas are caring for the children of their children—the victims of drugs, the drug industry, and a state economy that still leans on coal and chemicals the way a town drunk leans on a lamppost.
One such mama was the 75-year-old woman I met at a Williamson community forum sponsored by Facing Hunger Food Bank. She told the 20 or so of us gathered in a non-descript town building that she’s a retired school teacher now forced to work at Walmart to raise her three grandchildren because their mother was lost to drugs. “It’s an epidemic out there!” she told the group, noting that with these additional responsibilities, “I can’t make ends meet because the foster care support is not enough.”
I found myself in Williamson, the county seat of Mingo County which shares a rugged border with eastern Kentucky, as one of many destinations on my 2023 summer road trip. The purposes of subjecting myself to nearly 5,000 miles of often-grueling driving was to see East Coast friends and families, take a break from New Mexico’s heat and drought, and immerse myself once again in my favorite question—what and who is responsible for the crucifixion of so many American communities, and what’s required to nurture their resurrection.
My map showed that it would be hard for me to miss West Virginia. After a consultation with Dr. Joshua Lohnes, who oversees the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University and is part of a team that directs the state’s SNAP-ED initiative, I was told that the state’s southwestern Appalachian region has all the fuel I need to fire my curiosity. “These are resource-extraction (coal mining) communities where people feel disempowered by structural economic forces,” he told me, “It’s where people are pushing through those challenges, surviving, and doing what they can do.”
The Williamson visit confirmed Josh’s assessment and then some. A drive through the town takes you by its one and only attraction: the world’s biggest (and maybe only) building made entirely of bituminous coal—65 tons of it. Embodied in that building is both the story of the region’s rise and former prosperity, and its decline and struggle to find a new identity. As coal mining employment declined—23,000 jobs in 2011 in West Virginia, 11,000 today—so has the population. Mingo County had over 47,000 people in the 1950s but only 23,000 in 2020. In the wake of coal’s demise and its well-paying union jobs, you’ll find a 30 percent poverty rate and, as one indication of the region’s overall poor physical health, an obesity rate of 38.5 percent and a 15 percent diabetes rates, among the highest in the nation.
The unofficial populist sentiment in these parts is that the blows to the state’s economy are the fault of Democratic administrations, singling out former-President Barack Obama and his Environmental Protection Administration for special scorn. When one round of coal mine closing notices was issued in 2014—including two shut-downs in Mingo County—a spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Association blamed it on the “war on coal” orchestrated by President Barack Obama and the EPA. The truth of the matter is that aside from the global need to shift to cleaner and renewable sources of energy, coal’s decline is a function of the rise in natural gas and fracking, the decline in coal demand, especially as coal-fired power stations shut down, and the mechanization of coal mining methods—more mountaintop removal and open-pit mines mean fewer jobs.
The truth, however, is the first casualty for the miner who’s just been handed a pink-slip, and all he has to feed his family with are food stamps. With little doubt, this is why Barack Obama received only 8 percent of Mingo County’s vote in 2008, losing not only to McCain, but also to a convicted felon who ran as a write-in candidate. Overall, the fortunes of Democratic presidential candidates have tracked the coal industry’s decline. Bill Clinton took 52 percent of the West Virginia vote in 1996 compared to Joe Biden’s 30 percent showing against Trump’s 68 percent in 2020.
The voices in the Williamson community center echoed both the heartbreak and the hope of their economic malaise. When I read out loud the following statement from the Town of Williamson home page: “Williamson could have easily resigned itself to be a casualty of the decline in the industry [coal] that built it. But it’s proving it’s powered by an ever-greater energy source: a hopeful community,” I asked if people had read or even knew of the statement. Even though no one had, their reactions to it were shrouded in a curtain of despair that, when pulled back, offered a few reasons for optimism.
One young man who ran a home insulation business was chagrined by the hundred-plus abandoned houses in the small town of 3,000. From his work he knew that many seniors pay high energy bills because they live in poorly insulated homes (West Virginia is second only to Florida for its high percentage of seniors who make up the population). Jarrod Dean, the director of the town’s parks and recreation department was hopeful that a new committee on abandoned properties and the promise of state development funds might alleviate both problems.
Two representatives from the county school district shared that, due to the county’s dramatic population decline, the number of county schools had consolidated down from 30 to 9, and from 9000 students to 3,500. The “good news” was that all the schools qualified for a free, USDA lunch as well as a summer meal program that was currently serving about 600 kids a day. Erik Johnson, a community liaison specialist with Facing Hunger Food Bank (Facing Hunger Foodbank) pointed out that state funds were enabling the food bank to partner with all the schools to offer a weekend backpack program that provided enough food to sustain a child through the weekend. Additionally, the food bank ran a very popular “medically indicated food box” distribution every Wednesday in Williamson that customized the contents to the specific health and dietary needs of lower income seniors.
Limited broadband coverage and low literacy levels were cited as barriers to effective communication and community organizing. Lack of public transportation and the region’s notoriously winding roads reinforced the isolation of many communities and hindered the distribution of emergency food. And again, opioids and their multiple individual and community impacts were powerful undercurrents of everyday life.
Drug users and those in recovery—a visible presence about town—fell into one of three locally designated categories: “backpackers, walkers, or zombies,” referring to those who were either just arriving, in a recovery program, or totally zonked out. This is not the grinning “stoner” culture of my marijuana-using, Jerry Garcia blasting from the dorm room college days; this is humanity crippled, trapped in strands of rusty barbed-wire, crawling down a sidewalk like an injured cat seeking only a quiet place to die. This is where the cops carry naloxone, the antidote that can jumpstart the breathing of someone who has overdosed on opioids. It’s a place only two hours from Huntington, a community of 50,000 people which recorded 26 drug overdoses in one four-hour stretch in 2016.
Mingo is in a co-dependent economic relationship with four health facilities—two hospitals, one drug treatment facility, and one methadone clinic (with a 15 percent diabetes rate, drug treatment is not the only medical condition that sustains the region’s health care industry and hence the local economy). Drug use and its aftermath also send out seismic shock waves of collateral damage. Participants in our Williamson forum complained about the noise and chaos emanating constantly from subsidized apartments that are rented out to those in recovery. One woman in our group came to tears when she told us she had been adopted by her grandparents because her mother was opioid addicted. She said the emotional pain was exacerbated by the lack of family reunification services that might promote long-term healing.
In spite of a flood of troubles and challenges, mountain pride and persistence still prevail. Answers loomed, action was vigorously encouraged, villains were targeted, and a kind of faith against reason that their democratic institutions could still save them was proffered. Nathan Brown, a local attorney, Mingo County commissioner, and former West Virginia delegate (the designation for elected members of the legislature’s lower house), put the matter succinctly. “We got kids here who can’t afford to eat, but meanwhile, the state has a $2 billion budget surplus!” he told the group in a barely contained rage. “If the [State of West Virginia] doesn’t invest in this southwest region over the next 10 to 15 years, it will become a drag on the state’s entire economy.” To that end, Brown recommended that the state invest in the region’s infrastructure such as broad-band and roads. “The internet is just as important as water; it should be regulated like a public utility.” He emphasized that the state must also help the region become more attractive to private investment adding, “If we were good enough for the coal industry, we gotta be good enough for any industry,” he added with just a hint of irony. But spiffing up their look requires removing the physical blight (e.g., abandoned buildings) which, in his opinion, should include threatening jail time for absentee property owners who don’t take responsibility. Second, the region needs a drug-free workforce. “Businesses won’t locate here because they can’t find healthy, able-bodied workers,” he told everyone.
Interestingly, food and farming surfaced as one recipe for local change and economic growth. Jarrod Dean felt that agriculture could play a much larger role in diversifying the region’s economy. “We’re not even producing a small percentage of the food we eat in this state. Not only could we be developing high tech agriculture (e.g., greenhouses and hydroponics) to feed us, it could provide therapeutic and vocational opportunities for ‘second chancers’” he said, referring to those coming out of recovery and looking for work.
But the news that stirred the most attention—and kudos—was when Cyndi Kirkhart, Facing Hunger’s executive director, revealed plans to lease a 55,000 square-feet warehouse in Mingo County to distribute food to it and three adjoining counties. The warehouse will employ 15 people (a large number for one business in this region) and expedite food delivery to the area’s food pantries and other food distribution points. It will shorten the supply line from Facing Hunger’s current location in Huntington, a two-hour drive that is longer when winter turns the roads treacherous. Some of the new warehouse hires may be opioid users and/or convicted felons, both of which Facing Hunger has experience working with in job training situations.
It was generally known in the region and from sources I contacted in the state that Cyndi has taken the food bank in bold and innovative directions since she assumed the helm nine years ago. As a coal miner’s daughter herself, and with a psychology degree that led to work with the area’s most vulnerable adolescents, she hasn’t been afraid to make Facing Hunger a serious force for systemic change. Covering an unusual territory that serves 17 counties across three states (West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky), Facing Hunger sits at the center of Appalachia’s multiple maelstroms, including the economic decline that has pushed up demand for food but also made public and private resources harder to come by. “I’m paying for food now that we used to receive as donations,” Cyndi noted.
Against one of the most challenging socio-economic backdrops in the country, Cyndi and her staff are hoping to mobilize the community to address the underlying conditions of their hardships. “No more ramen!” is one mantra Cyndi is using to upgrade the nutritional quality of Facing Hunger’s offerings. Besides the medically indicated food box program, the food bank works with farmers, non-profit organizations, and multiple state agencies to stock and distribute as much locally produced and healthy food as possible. This includes a CSA program for seniors, and using the new warehouse in Mingo County to store area farmers’ produce, even if that food is not destined for food bank recipients.
When it comes to regional economic development, she sees numerous pathways starting with the most basic: “If people aren’t hungry, then they are more hopeful,” she said. But ever pragmatic, she convinced Senator Joe Manchin to bring home a slice of bacon for the hardest-hit part of his state. As a result, $1.5 million in Federal funds will be available to make the new warehouse facility operational, which both Cyndi and others see as a significant economic development tool.
But the most aggressive stance that Facing Hunger is taking is directed at the state’s policy makers. Meetings like the one she sponsored for me in Williamson are part of a larger regional organizing strategy that staffer Erik Johnson sees as a way to pry much needed resources out of state politicians. With 250-member food pantries in Facing Hunger’s region, there’s potential to galvanize the hurt and hopelessness of thousands of food recipients into a cacophony of demanding voices. Erik told me that, “Facing Hunger and its partners hope to bring 1,000 people to the state legislature during Hunger Day in January.” The plan is to shift the thinking of unresponsive conservative politicians, long the sycophants of the state’s coal and chemical industries, to meet people’s basic needs, diversify the economy, and make food and farming a central policy focus. As Cyndi told those at the Williamson forum, “We can’t be asking for teaspoons of assistance anymore when we need buckets of resources!”
Having not experienced many food banks that played such a dominant economic and community development role, I brought up Facing Hunger’s actions with West Virginia University’s Josh Lohnes. He said the states two food banks—the other one being Mountaineer Food Bank—are the biggest food hubs in the state. That makes them well-suited to not only address food insecurity but also assist local growers and other small and locally owned food businesses. In a similar vein, Josh has been exploring how nearly $1 billion in Federal food assistance (e.g., SNAP, WIC) that West Virginia receives annually could better leverage economic development in the food and agriculture sector. “Most of that money is now going to Walmart, Kroger’s, and Dollar General; over half of the state’s $500 million in SNAP dollars are going to big box stores. The impact of directing large amounts of those food purchases to the local food economy, including farmers and locally owned food businesses, could be immense.”
Strengthening the link between Federal food money and a state’s broader economic needs has certainly gained traction over the years nationally. The steady increase in USDA funding that incentivizes under-resourced people to buy and eat locally produced food, whether from schools, farmers’ markets, food hubs, or other food outlets, represents a significant—and welcomed—national policy shift. But Federal funds take on even greater meaning in West Virginia where, because of comparably high nutritional needs and low state resources, Federal food assistance represents about 15 percent of the state’s total budget. By contrast, if New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer secured a $1.5 million grant for some local project in his home state, the news would be greeted as a definite snoozer. When it’s done by Senator Manchin for Mingo County, the high school band suits up for a parade. “Because of the low investment in our communities by the state,” said Josh, “Federal money has a disproportionately greater impact.”
The same can be said for private philanthropic aide, another place where West Virginia comes up short. Having relatively few large foundations, there are not many places local food activists can turn for support other than local government, which can barely pay its own bills (Josh tells me about a food plan he worked on for a poor, rural county which desperately needed a mobile food pantry to reach isolated families. There was no way the county could help because their sheriff was in desperate need of a new car).
One notable exception, however, is the Pittsburgh-based Benedum Foundation which has distributed over half-a-billion dollars to West Virginia since World War Two. Recognizing, as others I spoke to did, the central role that food can play in so many facets of community life, the Benedum Foundation has targeted charitable food and farm projects with their giving. Signifying the priority they place on a food system model, their 2020 annual report was titled “Sowing the Seeds of Food Security” 2020-Annual-Report-Pandemic-Response.pdf (benedum.org)and highlighted numerous innovative food assistance and food development grantees. A few lines from that report are worth highlighting:
In 2006, the Benedum Foundation launched a decade-long strategy around the agricultural economy in West Virginia. This report reflects on that work, showing us all that food is a source of healing, an opportunity to train people in new skills, a connection to nature, and a way to give back to one’s community. Food affects every aspect of our lives. From heirloom vegetables… to Appalachian culture. It serves as an important economic connection between our urban and rural communities….Economic recovery depends on creating a viable support network for our food producers and providing families and children with access to the nutritious food they grow.
The industries that make up West Virginia’s glory days have seen better days, but their legacies of environmental degradation, hunger, poverty, and an Appalachian diaspora still pulse through the state’s veins. In spite of the fact that no one read the Williamson website’s paean to hope, the sons and daughters of the coal miners I met in Mingo County are making one hell of a goal-line stand. And if their state’s leaders drove with their eyes on the road ahead rather than on the rearview mirror, they would see the virtues of diversification, investing relentlessly—as in buckets, not teaspoons—in places struggling to remain alive, and roll out the red welcome carpet to young people. Leadership’s vision for the future should encompass a food and farm focus, not only because it meets today’s nutrition and economic needs, but because it presents a healthy and positive glow that can attract a new generation of bright, eager, and innovative minds to a state that is in sore need of young hearts and strong hands.
As the West Virginia portion of my 2023 Summer Road Trip continues, we’ll drive east over 125 miles of endless switchbacks—only 77 miles as the mountain bluebird flies—to Fayette County, West Virginia to see what a bright and shining future might look like. Stay tuned for Part Two!