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By Bo Wriston
West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs
The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG), West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (VOAD), Mountaineer Food Bank, Facing Hunger Food Bank, and West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (WVDHSEM) have joined forces to establish a regional food distribution center in the Greater Kanawha Valley as the need for supplemental and emergency food services continues to grow across the Mountain State during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The new distribution center, located at the WVNG Rock Branch facility in Poca, West Virginia, allows the multiple organizations to work together in a whole-of-government approach to provide additional food distribution capacity supporting the shared mission to assist West Virginia families and individuals that face food insecurity.
The Mountaineer Food Bank, headquartered in Gassaway, West Virginia, regularly services food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and other food-security programs in 48 of the state’s 55 counties. During normal weekly operations, they serve approximately 100 thousand families in the state, including some 15 to 20 thousand clients in the Greater Kanawha Valley.
Based out of Huntington, West Virginia, the Facing Hunger Food Bank operates as the primary food receiving, packaging, and distribution agency for 248 partner agencies servicing 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. Each day, Facing Hunger handles more than 20 thousand pounds of non-perishable and perishable products, equaling over 11 million pounds annually.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both organizations have seen a dramatic increase in demand for their services. In order to keep up with the increased need, food purchases by both organizations have tripled, resulting in the need for additional storage and distribution capabilities, especially for perishable cold-storage foods.
“Our organizations have seen a 40% or greater increase [for food] across the state since the beginning of the pandemic,” stated Chad Morrison, Executive Director of the Mountaineer Food Bank. “Working with the WVNG, WVVOAD, WVDHSEM, and Facing Hunger to establish a centralized distribution center in Kanawha County takes pressure off our collective headquarters facilities for storage and manpower needs, and allows us to better serve all our partner organizations throughout our great state and region.”
The idea of a centralized food distribution facility in the Greater Kanawha Valley has been considered for some time, and the partner agencies had been working together and with funding foundations on the concept well before the COVID-19 outbreak began. Once the pandemic struck, implementation of the idea became of paramount importance.
“I got a call at 9 p.m. on a Saturday night from Gen. Hoyer asking if there was a way the Guard could help us stand up another centralized food bank in support of Facing Hunger and Mountaineer [food banks],” said Jenny Gannaway, Executive Director for WVVOAD. “I knew the idea for such a facility already existed, so the next day I called the Benedum Foundation who provides a significant portion of funding for food operations in West Virginia to get their thoughts. They immediately agreed to work with the Guard to provide initial funding for operations. Once funding was secured, the WVNG identified the existing Rock Branch facility as the perfect location, and we brought the food banks into the process to help plan and execute the concept.”
“Our staff was thrilled with the potential opportunity to be a part of the planning, and to be actively engaged in this collaborative effort,” stated Cynthia Kirkhart, Executive Director at Facing Hunger. “This location will improve our support of emergency hunger relief and create a streamlined and efficient space in which we will always be ready to meet the needs of those we collectively serve in WV.”
The distribution center will provide a full range of food supplies to local agencies, including dry goods and high demand refrigerated and frozen foods such as eggs, meats, frozen vegetables, frozen breakfast items and additional perishable items. In order to house the cold-storage and frozen foods, the WVNG was able to secure 13 refrigerated tractor-trailers to store the items until local agencies are able to accept them. Permanent cold-storage units at the center will eventually replace the tractor-trailer units.
The new center will serve as a critically important hub for food distribution throughout West Virginia and is a perfect example of government working with the private sector and non-profit organizations to best serve citizens. Once fully operational, the Rock Branch center will support an estimated 8 new jobs adding to local economic recovery and provide an additional one million pounds of food stocks to the Greater Kanawha Valley each year.
WVDHSEM, who provides overall warehouse management for the Rock Branch facility, is assisting the distribution center effort by providing equipment such as forklifts and pallet jacks for warehouse operations, as well as helping to design and create the working spaces the new center will utilize.
“The logistical assistance and location space the WVNG and WVDHSEM has been able to provide to us to help us meet our mission of feeding West Virginia has just been incredible,” said Gabri Bonazzo, Communications Coordinator with the Mountaineer Food Bank. “More than 267,000 West Virginians, including 1 in 5 children, face food insecurity. In the Greater Kanawha Valley alone, we have seen an increase in demand of some 4,000 individuals above our regular distribution, and Facing Hunger is already servicing over 1,700 additional senior citizens since the onset of the pandemic. And that need continues to grow.”
“It takes a whole network of people to feed our vulnerable populations, including the very young and the elderly,” she added. “Without this location and the Guard’s assistance, we simply could not do what we are doing.”
Long-term funding for the center will depend on private sector non-profit efforts along with grants through the “Feeding America” program, and governmental funding available through the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the CARES Act passed by Congress to support COVID-19 response efforts.
“FEMA addresses food programs through Emergency Support Function (ESF) #6 – Mass Care, Emergency Assistance, Temporary Housing, and Human Services, to assist local organizations in providing life-saving services during disasters,” said Gannaway. “I have been in touch with WVDHSEM and FEMA and we are hoping that individual assistance funding will eventually become available in addition to public assistance funds that are already flowing. Those funds, combined with various grants, CARES Act funding, and the generosity of West Virginia citizens and our statewide foundations, will help us meet this crisis with strength and see us through the long-haul.”
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