"I know the look of 'I'm hungry'": Mason farmer feeds those in need, but needs public's help

Sherrie Taylor, a farmer from Mason County, can’t stand the thought of someone going hungry.

She has put thousands of miles on her family’s two pickup trucks in order to make sure people — commonly older folks who rely on food stamps — in five West Virginia counties have fresh food and a friend who cares.

“No matter how much I do, I know there’s someone who is going hungry,” Taylor said.

In four years, Taylor has grown her family’s traveling farmer’s market into a heart-felt but struggling nonprofit focused on feeding the hungry, especially those without transportation.

She keeps finding more mouths to feed; she hasn’t, though, found a network to help her keep up her food charity.

Each week, Taylor visits low-income housing, elderly living facilities and schools to sell tables full of low-priced produce and meat, most of which is grown and purchased in West Virginia.

Taylor also makes home deliveries because she can’t imagine saying “no” to someone who needs food.

Through a partnership with the Department of Health and Human Resources, shoppers at her pop-up markets can use food stamps to purchase produce.

“I can give you many locations and people I see each week that struggle with food, transportation and some just everyday life,” Taylor, 56, said.

One in six people in West Virginia live without adequate food, according to the federal government, and more than half of food insecure people in the state have jobs.

Food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are meant to fill in gaps in food budgets, but many times, recipients end up using the money to feed their families for a month as their cash goes to rent and gas.

Plus, Taylor noted, they can’t always get healthy food at their nearest gas station or dollar store if they have limited transportation.

“I know the look of ‘I’m hungry,’ ” Taylor said. “We want to give them back their dignity and self pride.”

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On Tuesday, Taylor typically sets up a pop-up market in Jacob Arbors, a Section 8 apartment building on Charleston’s East End.

She takes over the community room in the building, setting up a colorful display of potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, apples and more.

On this particular Tuesday, she’s hauled in fresh beets still attached to fuschia roots.

She knew everyone who came into the room and stopped to greet each person as she rattled off the prices to shoppers.

Linda Harris, a 68-year-old tenant, rode her scooter down to the first floor to shop at the market.

Before Taylor opened the market in Jacob Arbors about four months ago, Harris said she rarely had access to fresh food in the four years she’d lived in the building.

“I just didn’t get any unless I could muster up the energy to go to Kroger. But, that costs money for somebody to take me,” she said. “I tried to take the bus, but it’s so hard to get [my scooter] in there.”

The pop-up market gave her access to some of her favorite foods, including tomatoes and squash.

And she gained a friend in Taylor.

Empathizing with those in need hasn’t been difficult for Taylor; In 2010, she and her family lost everything they owned in a house fire.

She was living in South Carolina at the time, and said she saw first-hand how impactful it was to receive help from strangers and friends.

The fire and loss prompted Taylor and her husband, David, to move back to West Virginia — where they’d grown up — and start a new career together.

The pair hadn’t been farmers in South Carolina, but Taylor’s family had owned farmland in Lincoln County.

“My granddaddy grew tobacco, and we put out huge gardens. We fed everyone up the road,” Taylor said. “That’s how we ate. So, I watched.”

Taylor’s family launched Thankful Valley Farms and Hatchery, a mobile farmer’s market, in 2012 in Mason County.

The name was inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which says, in part, “In everything give thanks.”

Several farmer’s markets around the state accept SNAP and other food assistance programs, and Taylor signed onto the program in 2016.

The move, which led her to set up pop-up markets in Cabin Creek and Clendenin, opened her eyes to how many low-income residents were struggling to access healthy food.

She noted that while the state’s food assistance programs fill a critical need, food items given out through the federal government’s emergency food program may include bulk bags of rice and other grains — things that aren’t fresh and are difficult to cook and store.

Over the last few years, Taylor added several low-income apartment buildings and senior living facilities to her list of stops five days a week in Cabell, Fayette, Kanawha, Mason and Putnam counties.

“I noticed when I started this program that a lot of people don’t have nobody,” she said.

They’re lonely, and they’re depressed. Some of them have family, and some have family who don’t come.

“These people know me. I’m a familiar face and they trust me,” she said.

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Taylor admitted, despite coming across more communities in need, it has been hard for the business to be financially profitable as her work has evolved into a charitable mission.

“With gas $2.49 a gallon, I can’t go [to make] $10,” Taylor said. She also has to wait for the state to reimburse her for food stamp purchases.

“These seniors are spending every dime they can with me to keep me here,” she said. “They’re scared I’m not coming back.”

Earlier this year, Taylor’s husband opened a nonprofit, Feeding Dreams, so the family could accept donations for the charitable arm of its operations.

It also allowed the family to apply for food grants, but Taylor said she has yet to find any money available for her program to feed more people.

Taylor said she and her husband often discuss the future of the nonprofit and business, which employ her son and grandson.

“I don’t want to beg because that’s awful. I don’t know else to do. I want this so bad for these people,” she said.

Food charities in West Virginia feed nearly 300,000 residents every month, according to a study from WV Food Link.

That same study found the programs, which includes faith-based and nonprofit entities, are “most always underfunded” and “highly dependent on their social networks of volunteers and donors to continue providing services.”

Taylor said the “smiles and hugs” she receives from customers keep her going despite not knowing how long she can continue delivering produce to people in need.

“As a business owner, I can only do so much on my own,” Taylor said. “People ask me why I’m passionate. How could you not be?”

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Taylor is is hosting a “Fall on the Farm” celebration Oct. 19 for seniors who live in buildings she serves in Kanawha and Putnam counties. Many of the residents do not have transportation.

She is currently accepting food donations for the event to send seniors home with food. Additionally, she is searching for a bus or help covering the cost of a charter bus in order to transport seniors to her farm in Mason County.

For more information or to donate to Feeding Dreams, contact Sherrie Taylor at thankfulvalley@yahoo.com or call 304-458-2113.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach her at amelia.ferrell@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @ameliaknisely on Twitter.

Funerals for Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Dotson, Jeffery - 7 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Kees, Nancy - 11 a.m., Salem Road Freewill Baptist Church, Oak Hill.

Payne, Arless - 5 p.m., Taylor-Vandale Funeral Home, Spencer.

Taylor, Connie - 11 a.m., Memory Gardens, Low Gap.

Taylor, Joseph - 11 a.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Williams, Nellie - 1 p.m., Pineview Cemetery, Orgas.

Yates, Ruth - 11:30 a.m., Sunset Memorial Park Mausoleum, South Charleston.