|OPINION – Tackling food insecurity at the local level
by Paulette Justice, Executive Director
Kanawha Valley Senior Services
Published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail
Each weekday, chefs arrive at the Kanawha Valley Senior Services’ kitchens around 5 a.m. with a very important mission: feeding seniors in Kanawha County.
Stirring, heating, seasoning and packaging, the team makes meals with compassion and efficiency. Our tireless and dedicated staff prepares (from scratch) about 700 meals every morning. I often get phone calls from clients thanking us for the meals — and bragging about their delicious dinners.
As executive director of Kanawha Valley Senior Services, I’ve seen the need for meals grow during the pandemic. In any given year, about 125 new seniors enroll in our food-assistance programs. Last year, with the pandemic forcing seniors inside and restricting their interactions with others, that number doubled.
Even before the pandemic, there was a critical need for these meals.
Our partner, the United Health Foundation, recently released the America’s Health Rankings Annual Report, a state-by-state analysis of key health metrics. The report is intended to drive change and improve health by promoting data-driven discussions among individuals, community leaders, media, policymakers and public health officials.
The report highlighted a trend that we’ve seen firsthand: 16% of West Virginia households were facing food insecurity pre-pandemic
The good news? We can address the state’s growing hunger problems — like we’ve done with many other challenges — together.
For example, the Mountain State has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, with 9.86% of the its population having received coronavirus inoculations, a ratio that is second in the country and twice that of many states. We also lead the country in the percentage of doses with an administration rate over 100%.
Our state’s success with administering vaccinations points to factors that ring true to my own experiences. West Virginia boasts a strong network of state and local partnerships — partnerships that empower communities to respond to local challenges in very human and personal ways.
Our team is proud of the local connections we’ve forged to continue offering nourishing meals to seniors over the past year. The pandemic can’t and won’t slow us down.
Physical distancing requirements have complicated the delivery of meals. While we have shifted to a “grab and go” model where we can, the inability of many seniors to travel makes our in-home delivery operations even more critical.
Our team of 10 drivers — bolstered by a United Healthcare Empowering Health grant that covered the cost of another vehicle and driver — are out the door by 8:30 a.m., typically finishing up their routes by the end of lunchtime.
And they do more than deliver meals. Many seniors historically struggle with social isolation and loneliness, and COVID-19 has compounded that situation. That’s why our drivers make it a point to greet and talk with each client. Sometimes, our drivers are the only people that some seniors see all week. Drivers become their lifelines to the outside world.
And when clients don’t answer the door, which happened recently when one homebound senior had fallen, we’re there to make sure they get the care they need.
Food insecurity is a national problem, with causes that are complex and deep-rooted. But, given the commitment to helping address this issue among so many in our community — including local governments, volunteers and private donors — we are working hard to ensure that the most vulnerable residents of West Virginia are being fed, body and soul.