Five Loaves & Two Fishes is located on Coal Heritage Road (US-52) in the small community of Kimball about five miles from Welch, the county seat of McDowell County, West Virginia, arguably among the poorest counties in the country.
The county, once thriving in the 1950s with a population of more than 100,000, has seen its population drop to some 20,000 today due to the decline in the coal industry on which tens of thousands of families relied upon.
The unemployment rate is 8 percent, nearly twice the national rate, but the people who remain love the place they call home, and will never leave despite the hardships they face.
Among the challenges is the lack of convenient access to healthy food in the rural region known as a “food desert” where well-stocked grocery and big-box stores are few and far-between.
The situation was exacerbated with the closing of the Walmart in McDowell County and the end of a partnership with a U.S. hunger relief organization. It meant funding for fresh produce was lost.
The closing was especially difficult for Five Loaves & Two Fishes, run by Linda McKinney and her husband, Bob, who told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that superstore’s closing actually inspired their family to rethink how they get food for the pantry.
Five Loaves & Two Fishes still manages to provide approximately 15,000 individuals with nonperishable food items annually and the family-operated organization which relies solely on volunteers are propped up by the family-owned small business, Roadside Farms.
Roadside Farms delivers food such as its “Mega Salad” containing cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, banana peppers, carrots, red onions, and more on a bed of its hydroponic lettuce mix, along with other menu items to residents in local communities such as Welch, Pineville, Rockview, Brushfork, and others.
Comments on its Facebook page include “Food is amazing and I respect a business that goes above and beyond for their customers” and “delicious, healthy and fresh food for a good price. Love everything that I’ve tried.”
In addition, Roadside Farms donates lettuce to nearby schools and supplements fresh produce for the Five Loaves & Two Fishes food bank – a self-sustaining and innovative solution Americans Helping Americans® is proud to support.
“I just never want anyone to go hungry, ’cause I watched as my grandmother provided for the children who lived in our holler that would come in our yard and play,” she told West Virginia Public Broadcasting. “She always had fresh bread, hard salami.”
She and her husband, a retired minister, have been running the food pantry since 2009, and Linda notes that the need to help hungry people keeps growing in McDowell County.
Among Americans Helping Americans® newest partners is Sprouting Hope, located in Marion, Virginia in the rural southwest region of the state.
Sprouting Hope’s mission is to feed the community by growing and sharing healthy produce, with the vision of everyone having access to healthy food.
“With a focus on serving and empowering low-income individuals, we not only give a fish, but also teach how to fish by making the program accessible for participants to work and learn in the garden,” states the organization.
Everything grown is distributed to volunteers, food pantries, soup kitchens and a local free clinic. In addition, Sprouting Hope offers youth education and therapeutic gardening programs for people in the mental health community.
It’s 13,800 square foot garden serves more than 300 families with approximately three tons of fresh produce annually.
Sprouting Hope is located in Smyth County, which as a population of less than 6,000 and a median household income of $38,900, much lower than the statewide average of $68,114. Indeed, the services of Sprouting Hope are much needed.
Fresh produce provided to households by Sprouting Hope is key to healthier diets, particularly for growing children in a county where 55 percent of them qualify for free and reduced-price meals and one-third are expected to develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime and are at risk becoming seriously obese.
Low-income rural Appalachian communities are at an even greater risk than the general population, so access to nutritious food is vital to their health.
With funding from Americans Helping Americans, Sprouting Hope will be able to restart their Homegrown project which allows applicants to participate in a multi-year education course teaching them how to start a farm in their own backyard.
In the first year, they will learn the basics of farming including proper ways to ward off insect pests and diseases and learn more about the options and benefits of organic gardening. In the second year of the curriculum, participants will be instructed on how to qualify for food certifications and sell their produce at local farmers markets.
Fresh food and self-sustainability will work wonders for this community and this project can be emulated across America.
Our friends at Big Creek People in Action in War, West Virginia, one of the groups Americans Helping Americans has been supporting for nearly 20 years, has made a big impact on their community.
With our help, they have repaired what seems to be every other house on the streets of War. Together, we are also making sure as many students as possible are able to have school supplies.
But what truly impresses me is the community they are building, and how we have been a part of that in War and towns across Appalachia.
Like many other coal towns today, War has had a hard time trying to find a new identity as coal companies downsized their work force. But Big Creek People in Action is taking on the heroic task of ensuring there is a sense of community in their town.
They’ve used surplus supplies to build a community gathering outside their office, which is a renovated elementary school that has been closed down for years. They’ve planted a garden, built a gazebo, and even constructed a stage in the parking lot that has been used for bands to play during their Mountain Music Festival, free for everyone at the town! Eight bands played and the whole town showed up in support!
The memories that the children will keep are priceless and the joy the community can share is simply amazing. I believe the architects behind festivals like these are the unsung heroes of Appalachia, and I’m glad to say they are our partners.
I see providing basic needs, home repairs, education and more as our main goal at Americans Helping Americans. At the same time, we also want to create a sense of community throughout Appalachia that has been lost over the years. This is why we support grassroots organizations like Big Creek People in Action. Your support doesn’t only make you a hero for Appalachia – it creates a sense of community for our American neighbors.
Earlier this summer, I spent some time “being a kid” at summer camps in small towns throughout Appalachia.
In Kentucky and West Virginia at summer camps that are sponsored by Americans Helpings Americans, children find a place where they can be with friends and learn important skills. Educational activities in the summer are much more relaxed than those during the school year. Children can play and learn to be themselves at the same time.
The most moving thing I noticed though, was a child who learned self-confidence.
One of the campers I noticed was so shy; she had a hard time talking to anyone. After some time just playing with her, I was able to get her to open up. She told me she wanted to be police officer, just like her dad. I told her that she would be a great officer, and that one day, she would step up and be a hero just like her dad.
The next day, we were making volcanoes out of clay. Her volcano was gorgeous! After she was finished, she went around to help other campers with their volcanoes. I was blown away! Just a day earlier, she was so scared she couldn’t talk to anyone. Now she was not only talking to fellow campers; she was helping them learn!
I saw heroism in her that day. I was so moved. That confidence that she learned at summer camp will be with her as she goes into the new school year. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if she didn’t attend summer camp this year?
If you would like to go beyond the call of duty, a gift to Americans Helping Americans can help make more heroes!
Every year, close to 100 home repair projects are sponsored by Americans Helping Americans and this year is no different. I participated on a few sites, making sure handicap ramps were built, roofs were patched, and kitchen floors were repaired. I met some interesting people along the way like my good friend from South Korea: Ko.
Ko travelled over 7,000 miles to help us fix American homes in Tennessee, which doesn’t happen a lot. He doesn’t speak a lot of English, but we bonded over hard work and completing tasks.
If Ko carried 6 two-by-fours, I had to carry 8. If I was hammering 10 nails a minute, Ko had to do 15. I thought how brave someone must be to go to a different country, immerse yourself in the language, and work on a construction project like ours.
He doesn’t know this country. He doesn’t know these communities. He doesn’t know these people he’s helping. All he knows is that it’s not right for someone to be unable to get into their own home due to financial reasons or for a child to be interrupted while studying in their room due to water leaking through the roofs because money is too tight to fix it.
Ko flew in like Superman to save a home and in a few weeks, he will fly back to what I’m assuming is his Fortress of Solitude.
To make more heroes like Ko, a gift to Americans Helping Americans can bring them to repair sites across Appalachia.
I can’t wait to fix homes with Ko again… and hopefully play more games.
Parents and their children who attend Lee County Elementary School in rural eastern Kentucky were up long before sunrise on Friday, August 2, to take part in the school’s annual “Readifest” event, a tradition there for 26 years to ensure students are ready for the first day of school.
“This year we had 52 agencies participating in the event and it was our biggest event to date,” reported Sherry Lanham, director of our partner organization, the Lee County Family Resource Center.
“Parents and children were in line by 3 a.m. and doors didn’t open until 8:30 a.m.,” said Sherry
“Once again, Americans Helping Americans® provided school supplies.”
Every one of the more than 400 children who registered for Readifest are living in what The New York Times has described as one of the “hardest” places to live in the country, and thanks to the supporters of Americans Helping Americans they will have everything they need today, Wednesday, August 7, when they arrive for class on the first day of a new school year.
But these children are the fortunate ones.
Throughout Appalachia a new school year will be beginning for thousands more in the coming weeks and many of their parents are worrying about how they will pay for the supplies they know their children need.
$11 is all it costs to ensure that an elementary school student has everything they need to be prepared from day 1 of the first day of school, and eliminate the shame and embarrassment they would feel (through no fault of their own) when their teacher inevitable tells them to take out a pencil and a piece of paper, and they have neither.
Your gift of $110, $55, $222, or even just $11 will provide 10, 5, 2 or one child with the “tools for school” they need to get off to a successful school year.