“Everything is free” at Americans Helping Americans® partner Appalachian Outreach’s “Back-to-School Bash” in Jefferson City, Tennessee.
“This is a fun community event to help kick off the school year,” explained Appalachian Outreach Executive Director Jean-Ann Washam. “All school-age children in Jefferson and Grainger counties can attend and receive a new backpack full of school supplies.”
In addition to the school supplies, there were plenty of fun activities for the children including moon bounces, face painting, games, and plenty of treats such as popcorn, cotton candy and snow cones.
For the parents, who were relieved of the burden of trying to figure out how they were going to pay for their children’s school supplies, several local assistance agencies set up informational tables to inform them of what services might be available to them.
The children were so excited and happy to receive their new school supplies, including first-grader Emma, who upon receiving hers, exclaimed “I can’t wait to start school!”
Kate, a mother of four, commented, “With four kids it is very hard to afford all the school supplies they need. This event is a big help to my family.”
“Thank you for all you do to support Appalachian Outreach and this event,” said Jean-Ann. “Without Americans Helping Americans® many families in our area would struggle to provide needed school supplies for their children.”
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.