Rural hunger: West Virginia braces for federal program changes

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Lauri Andress
Lauri Andress, West Virginia University researcher, talks to homeless and low income citizens in Morgantown, West Virginia, about food access and transportation. (Submitted photo)

While rural hunger has been on the decline in recent years, it still affects many Americans. Researchers, advocates and families who struggle with empty bellies say upcoming changes to federal programs might put any progress at risk.

“I was a full-time Head Start teacher when I qualified for SNAP benefits,” said Amy Jo Hutchison, a northern West Virginia resident, who now works for Our Future West Virginia, an anti-hunger advocacy group. She’s a single mom who’s been on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program before.

Though she no longer qualifies, she said the program helped her immensely, a fact that has led her to fight stereotypes. “If they don’t think you’re eating steak and lobster, they think you’re filling your buggie full of ice cream, potato chips and pop,” she said, and those misconceptions have consequences.

As it is, the program helps more than 16% of West Virginians put food on the table, according to the USDA. Although food insecurity in rural communities decreased from a high of 14.9% to 11.1% from 2011 to 2018, rates in rural areas are still about 3% higher than in urban areas.

Transportation limits

Rural hunger is a complex issue with distinctive local flavor. Researchers for a recent national study on rural hunger interviewed 153 rural food insecure families across six states, including West Virginia.

Contributing factors included seasonal or temporary unemployment or underemployment. Geography can also leave communities isolated. “Many participants described pipeline work, and pipeline work is really a seasonal job,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, assistant professor and extension specialist at North Carolina State University, and co-author of the first-of-its-kind study. “So many participants mentioned the winter as being the hardest time to feed a family, because they weren’t working at that time.”

The study, commissioned by Feeding America, a national anti-hunger advocacy group that manages America’s largest network of food banks, also offered recommendations for reducing rural hunger. A major theme was improving access to transportation.

“There seemed to be an extra layer of helplessness or acceptance of the state poverty in the families, especially those that were unemployed for long periods of time,” said West Virginia University researcher and study co-author, Lauri Andress.

Food insecurity in the communities where Andress carried out interviews was deeply connected with both lack of local jobs that people could access and lack of transportation, both personal and public. Food assistance programs, from summer meals for children to food pantries, require people to travel. That can be a barrier for families.

Hutchison sees this play out in the communities where she works, where families often live 45 minutes or an hour from the nearest grocery store. “And that’s if they have a vehicle,” she said, given the lack of public transportation in most areas. Hutchison said in some places, elderly citizens ride electric wheelchairs to the food pantry, because it’s the only mode of transportation they have.

On the ground

Despite how budget-conscious and strategic low-income families are in managing their food dollars, many eventually turn to local charities. They work hard to stretch public assistance benefits like SNAP or Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) assistance dollars throughout the month. They do that because of the sense of embarrassment they felt visiting food pantries and faith-based locations, especially in their own communities where they are well known, Haynes-Maslow said.

“It’s really disheartening, because a lot of people that you see there you didn’t realize were in the same situation that you are in,” the report quotes Tina, a mom from West Virginia, about her experience at a local food bank.

There are only two food banks in West Virginia. They serve a minimum of 270,000 food insecure people, by supporting about 625 local food pantries, day care programs, homeless shelters and sober living facilities that help people recover from opioid misuse.

One, Facing Hunger, provides food to pantries in rural Kentucky and Ohio as well. Unemployment rates in some of the counties Facing Hunger serves are in double digits. “A couple years ago, the state started to take proactive measures with pilot projects to reduce SNAP benefits for ABAWD,” said Cyndi Kirkhart, executive director of the Facing Hunger Food Bank, referring to “able bodied adults without dependents.”

Program advocates thought the work requirements would create incentives for that segment of adults to return to the workforce. Information published by West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources, however, indicates that the nine state pilot programs did not lead to a significant increase in employment among able-bodied adults without dependents. “We pretty immediately saw an increase of 30% of demand for emergency food and hunger relief,” Kirkhart said.

When this pilot was carried out, Kirkhart said her food bank used its entire food purchasing budget for the year in the first quarter, because pantries were running critically low.

On the horizon

Recent changes to USDA policy, which will go into effect April 1, remove states’ ability to request work requirement exemptions in areas where unemployment rates remain high. This means if beneficiaries don’t meet the 20-hour-per-week requirement, for whatever reason, they will no longer be eligible for benefits.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, the rule change is likely to remove 700,000 American’s nationwide from the program. And, according to research by the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University, the change would cause 25,000 West Virginians to lose assistance, costing the state $20 million in economic activity.

There are some exceptions to the rule changes, including carve-outs for those in drug treatment facilities, those who spend 20 hours a week volunteering or who are in a work training program. Hutchison worries that in too many West Virginia counties, these supplemental activities simply don’t exist.

“We have so many counties where there’s just not a lot of economic work,” she said. “It’s just not a possibility. So what if all these people had to go volunteer at the library? What if that was their only place? How many people can the library truly volunteer for 20 hours a week?”

Kirkhart said that in communities where she operates, jobs are often simply not available. When they are, geography and transportation limitations mean people can’t get to them.

She is concerned about the ability of the unemployed to feed themselves under this rule, but also the employed who might not be able to count on their benefits even week to week.
Hutchison pointed to young people who are aging out of foster care. If they can’t get into a transitional living program, they have to find housing and a job immediately. They will be unable to qualify for food assistance until they do, Hutchison said.

Individuals with certain types of disabilities, including veterans or people with handicaps not deemed eligible for disability insurance, or waiting on a final judgment from the Social Security Administration, would find themselves in the same boat.

Go to work

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue defended the change. “Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work,” he said. ”This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”

West Virginia’s Gov. Jim Justice signed a law eliminating the state’s exemption for able bodied adults without dependents in 2018, though it did not go into effect until Jan. 1.
The first 36 counties where the rule went into effect are those with the lowest levels of unemployment, Linda Watts, commissioner of the DHHR’S Bureau of Children and Families, said in a statement.

Healthy food

For a former SNAP recipient like Hutchison, it’s about more than just hunger.
When she was receiving SNAP benefits, she was able to go to stores like Kroger for the first time. “I remember standing there in the salad dressing aisle, completely overwhelmed,” she said.

The access SNAP allows, for participants to experience “a better way of eating and better nutrition” is critical, Hutchison said.

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