KIMBALL — When the McDowell County Walmart closed in 2016, residents lost more than jobs. Fresh food became harder to find. Produce prices rose as delivery fees for local grocers increased. Area food pantries lost their biggest donors.
Food security in West Virginia’s poorest county was already tenuous before the closure, and in years since, as other stores have closed and as more people face potential poverty, the gaps have grown larger.
In Kimball, just two miles from where the abandoned Walmart sits with vines and weeds breaking through its cement foundation, a group is hoping to better the region’s food economy by opening a community grocery store.
“We need to bring something back here to give people hope, and show them that the way things have been is not the way they should be,” said Crystal Cook, who is working on the initiative. “We see a grocery store, but also so much more. We want this to be an example of what can be done for places struggling in similar ways, and we know there are a lot of those.”
Cook is a co-founder of Economic Development Greater East, a nonprofit and volunteer-run group focused on growing and supporting local agricultural initiatives. The group started in 2016 to fill what organizers saw as gaps in programming and education for agricultural endeavors.
“I was going into schools, teaching kids basics of growing vegetables and there were some, you know, really basic things we’d pull out and they’d be unfamiliar. They had no idea what some of this was,” Cook said. “We realized the knowledge we were losing through current food practices: people think their food, it comes from Walmart not the ground. We want to show it’s much more complicated — and important — than that.”
The Mountain Farm Community Grocery, which is yet to open but is in development in Kimball, would serve as a reminder of what local food systems could be if they had support. Cook said it wouldn’t just be locally operated, but the products, wherever possible, would be locally sourced, bolstering regional farmers and artisans.
The money spent there would go directly back into community programs, like job training as well as farming and agriculture education to help people learn skills and become more sustainable on their own.
“When we’re looking at distressed communities, problems compound on top of each other. There’s no such thing as just a poverty issue, a hunger issue or the drug epidemic — these are all related,” said Amelia Bandy, executive director at Economic Development Greater East. “The trauma people experience living in these situations is serious, and there’s a reality that there are not the same resources here as in bigger or more populated places to help them.”
According to Feeding America, a national nonprofit focused on food insecurity, McDowell County is the most food insecure county in West Virginia, with nearly a quarter of residents reporting inconsistent access to affordable, fresh food near them. More than 70% of residents in McDowell qualify for low-income nutrition assistance programs, like food stamps.
The county would need more than $2 million to fill the gaps in its food access lines, nearly half the entirety of the county’s total revenues in 2020, according to the state auditor’s office.
In her day job, Bandy works for Virginia’s public health sector. Though from Tazewell County, across the state line from McDowell, Bandy said issues affecting the communities are similar, and when it comes to public health, state lines — or even county lines — don’t mean much.
“We’re as healthy as the unhealthiest people in our communities,” Bandy said. “And community health, when the resources are as limited as they are here, isn’t faring very well.”
List after list released by government agencies, research tanks and nonprofits show McDowell County as the least healthy county in West Virginia, and West Virginia as one of the unhealthiest states in the nation. Heart problems, diabetes and obesity rates are among the highest in the nation, as well as drug use and overdose rates.
The health care infrastructure in the region is fragile, relying on a loose network of clinics to treat some of the sickest people in the state.
Doctors and medical providers in the area often say preventative medicine is lacking. People go to the doctor when they need to, and even then it’s often with resistance.
“When you’re talking about people living here for decades at times, not knowing anywhere or anything else, well that adds up,” Bandy said. “If you’re hungry for a long time then you’re not healthy. Your body will turn on itself. You will get sicker and sicker.”
The physical risks are compounded with the mental toll of living in such conditions, and again, resources to help with such are limited.
McDowell County is a food desert, but it is also a health care desert, and things are not improving.
“People have this idea — and you’ll hear it every year at [the Legislature] that we need to bring more people to places like McDowell, or West Virginia in general, so we can start building back up,” Cook said. “That’s ridiculous. The coal companies didn’t do that. Oil didn’t. West Virginia has never experienced growth like that. What worked in the past was the industry coming in, and opportunities — shops, movie theaters, parks, restaurants, houses — that all popped up around it. Never the other way around.”
This looks a bit different today, Cook said. Of course a community grocer won’t bring success to the same level coal mining did in the 20th century, but something has to become “the anchor” in the community, and she sees this as a starting point.
Economic Development Greater East purchased a building right off U.S. 52, next to the former Widener Funeral Home a short walk down from Ya’Sou Restaurant, one of a handful of locally owned eateries in the area.
The 10-mile stretch of U.S. 52 between Welch and this part of Kimball is a living monument to the area’s past food economies.
Locally owned Goodson’s Supermarket sits atop a hill to the north, overlooking downtown Welch. It’s one of only two grocery stores in the more than 530 square miles that make up McDowell County.
From there, the stretch out of town houses fast food restaurants, discount stores, gas stations and drug stores, many of which have started carrying more food staples — often at higher prices — to meet the region’s growing demand.
As the road winds, remnants of old coal company stores, where coal mining families were forced to shop for their goods during the industry’s heyday, still stand roadside.
Another few miles down, Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank sits on the right. A small high tunnel stands in the grass nearby, which used to house a hydroponics system for the now defunct Roadside Farms, an initiative that was meant to bring fresh, locally sourced produce to residents and host the county’s first-ever farmer’s market.
Each month, thousands of people line up in the food bank’s parking lot, waiting for their turn to take a box of food and some water. The busiest days, said Linda McKinney, who runs the food bank, are always near the end of the month when people are without their paychecks.
The empty Walmart sits just past the food bank. Two miles down, a short stretch of buildings abut Elkhorn Creek, including the old Gianato Grocery, now closed, and Ya’Sou. From the 1980s on, these buildings — including the one that will soon be Mountain Farm — were repeatedly battered by flood waters, and the wear shows.
The front of the red brick building is painted a light blue, and the interior is a near-pit, with the floor sunken into a large pile of wood, glass, overgrowth and dirt. A large mural covers most of the southernmost wall, though it’s difficult today to see what it once displayed.
There is a lot of work to be done.
“We know that, and once that work is done there will always be more,” Cook said.
The volunteers now are seeking funds to help them with the construction and renovation costs for the building. Once that’s secured, Cook said the other pieces — as long as community support grows — will fall into place.
Though spending years working with nonprofits across the United States, Cook said her family hails from McDowell County, and she spent several childhood years there before they relocated.
She knows how hesitant those living in West Virginia’s southern coalfields can be when outsiders bring big promises to lift the region up.
“We don’t want to overpromise, and that’s why we’re taking one step at a time,” Cook said. “We want people to know, though, this is our home too. We aren’t coming here with a cure no one asked for. We’re here to help everyone work together for all of our sakes.”
Bandy said as a nonprofit, the only thing Economic Development Greater East has to barter with is trust. If they lose the community’s trust, she said, then they lose everything.
“That’s the one thing we don’t want to do, and that’s why we’re working now to build up relationships to last,” Bandy said. “Our vision — the community’s vision — of what [Mountain Farm] should be could change, and we’re more than willing to do that as long as we have the support and faith of the people who live here behind us.”
To learn more about Economic Development Greater East or to donate to Mountain Farm Community Grocery, visit http://edge-us.org/.