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Food pantry struggles to keep up with need

February 26, 2019

LOGAN — On Thursday morning, Joyce Hatfield tread carefully between deep puddles of rain water and patches of mud, toward an impromptu registration table sandwiched between a repurposed milk truck and two storage units packed full of nonperishable foods.

There, the 80-year-old Lyburn native received a slip of paper with a number, reserving her spot in a line to fill the empty box she carried under her arm with an assortment of food to help her and her husband get through the month.

This is where Hatfield has spent the third Thursday of every month for years — standing outside a gospel shed at Paradise Island, about 5 miles outside of Man, toward Gilbert on Route 80, waiting with hundreds of other people to receive food from Miracle Island Unlimited food pantry.

“It helps a whole lot. We wouldn’t have money to buy all the food we need if we didn’t come here. We’re on a fixed income, and it’s hard, it is,” Hatfield said. “A whole lot of needy people come here, and we’d have to do without if we couldn’t come here. We wouldn’t have much to eat, especially not much fresh [food].”

Priscella Cline Smith owns the patch of land along the Guyandotte River and runs the food pantry. In front of her home — which is a refurbished, expanded trailer on the property — there is an old playground, painted a striking teal and maroon, where children play as their guardians wait for food. To the left, there’s a two-story inn and to the right, a camper park, where pipeline workers and truckers regularly rent out biblically-themed trailers for themselves and their families while they work in the region.

While Miracle Island Unlimited is based in Logan County, Smith said it feeds thousands of people monthly from all the surrounding coalfield counties — Mingo, Wyoming, Boone, Lincoln and McDowell.

According to Feeding America, a national nonprofit focused on food accessibility, all of these counties rank in the top 10 for food insecurity in West Virginia. With an estimated 22,560 people marked as food insecure in the southern coalfields region — about 15 percent of the total population — visits to food pantries like Smith’s become a necessity, and a routine, for many.

Distribution begins at 11 a.m. on the third Thursday of each month, and continues as late into the day as necessary. On the Wednesdays before, a handful of volunteers from different communities come to Smith’s home and pick up hundreds of boxes of food to take to others that are bedridden or too far away to attend distribution days.

On Thursday, waves of people came and went. Most were elderly, some with walkers or oxygen tanks at their sides as they waited for their numbers to be called.

The number system is new, Smith said.

“We just got too big. We got too many people to have them standing around in line, so we’re doing numbers now,” Smith said. “They don’t like it — not big on change — but they’ll get used to it.”

Smith said more than 19,000 boxes of food were provided by Miracle Island Unlimited in 2018.

When she started the food pantry five years ago, it served a modest 60 people.

“Things are getting tiring around here, but we can’t give up, we cannot,” Smith said, her eyes watering. “There is need — a lot of it — and we will provide what we can, but we need help. Lord, do we need it.”

On Wednesday, Smith received four massive freezers from Big Sandy Superstore to help keep perishable food. Right now, a narrow closet, about 2 feet wide, holds most of the other food — canned meat, canned vegetables, crackers and other staples.

Last month, volunteers and those waiting to receive food stood in freezing temperatures, and the ground — all dirt with small patches of grass spread throughout — was saturated with mud and deep puddles of nearly frozen water.

Smith stood in that water for more than six hours, organizing and directing people at the food pantry. By the end of the day, she said, her feet were completely numb — “I couldn’t feel my toes, I’m telling you, for at least a week.”

This month she wore rubber rain boots, and she warned everyone else to do the same.

“We need gravel out here, we need to get this all laid out so these people don’t have to stand in mud and water — cold, cold water,” Smith said. “We can’t afford it, but we need it. They deserve that.”

Smith hopes a company will donate its services to pave the area, or at least do so at a discount, but so far she’s had no luck.

Outside of running Miracle Island and renting out the campers on her property, Smith doesn’t work, and her husband — a former coal miner — is on disability, so there’s limited money coming into their home.

She already pays hundreds of dollars of her own money monthly to provide more food for the pantry. What she can’t get covered by grants and food assistance programs, she buys out of her own pocket.

The volunteers who come every month are a mix of people, “a band of misfits who all fit together,” Smith says.

Just as she can’t afford to pave the lot, she can’t afford to pay the workers who make the food pantry possible. They donate their time, their cars and trucks, and their bodies each month to pick up thousands of pounds of food from Huntington, unload it by hand, organize it into the pantry boxes and distribute it to those in need.

Smith recently developed a hernia due to the heavy lifting, which usually consists of 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of food.

A forklift, Smith said, would make the process easier, but isn’t a possibility at this moment.

Since the work is so daunting, sometimes volunteers fall out of the loop. When there aren’t enough around on Thursdays to help with the distribution, Smith calls on the crowd of waiting people to hand out boxes and organize the food.

“The ones that are able, I get them around to help. It’s an all-hands-on-deck type of operation,” she said.

Underneath the gospel shed’s overhang, old church pews sit beneath piles of donated clothes that visitors are invited to search through and take.

Latasha Hickman, a 37-yearold mother from Man, brought clothes to donate Thursday as she waited to receive her food.

“We can do that, we have clothes to give. It’s food that sometimes gets hard for us,” Hickman said.

This was her second time visiting the pantry — she just heard about it in January — and like others in attendance, the food is a welcome addition to her household. Last month, her 9-year-old son was most excited about the cookies Smith included for him in Hickman’s box. “A nice little treat,” she said.

Many at the pantry said they were on a fixed income — either Social Security or disability for most — and some said they don’t qualify for federal food assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but don’t bring in enough money to comfortably feed themselves or their dependents.

“Without this, we’d learn to make do, I guess,” Hickman said. “You gotta stretch the food, make things that last a long while like spaghetti, soup, chili. We’d just stretch out what we do have.”

When visitors arrive at Paradise Island each month, the food is always somewhat of a mystery.

“You never know what you’re going to get, but it’s going to be good, it’s going to be food,” said Wallace Copley, an 82-year-old from Man.

This month’s goodies included oranges, milk, beef, strawberries and potatoes, among other things.

In Smith’s living room, a large computer sits with two tabs open on the screen. One for her Facebook page, which she uses as a main line of communication for people looking for food outside of distribution days. When people message her asking for help, no matter the day, she prepares boxes for them to pick up.

The other tab is for Facing Hunger’s online ordering system. There, food pantries and donation centers served by Facing Hunger — a Huntington-based food bank where Smith gets a majority of the food — can see what food will be available each month and put in orders to reserve however much they qualify for to give out to patrons.

It’s done on a first-come, first-served basis, so Smith refreshes the page throughout the day to see what she can get.

For some who frequent Miracle Island, it’s just one stop of a few they make throughout the month as their resources thin. There are smaller food pantries in Man and in Gilbert, but Alice Blair, a 69-year-old from Man, said Smith’s operation is incomparable.

“We can get some fresh food here, and that’s really the hard stuff to afford,” Blair said. “Fruits and vegetables and milk — meat when [Smith] has it — that’s what’s good, what we need, but it’s expensive and there aren’t a lot of buying options [in the area].”

Alice Hunter, a 47-year-old from Buffalo Creek, said Thursday was her first time visiting the pantry. She stood off to the side with Blair and Copley, waiting to hear their numbers called so they could pick up the food.

“I’ll tell you, looking at a lot of the people here, they need this worse than I do, I’m sure. I could live without the help, but this makes it easier,” Hunter said. “There’s not a lot of work to be found around here, and we already stretch [the resources] we do have. I want to see what I can do to help.”

Hunter said she plans on bringing some clothes to donate next month. “You know, take what you need, give what you can,” she said.

Miracle Island Unlimited is chartered as a 501©(3) nonprofit, and while Smith said she’d never exclude anyone from who qualifies from receiving food, she runs the program with strong Christian themes.

Her father, 83-year-old Tommie Cline, is a reverend and used to do services at the gospel shed, which he built by hand in 2005. Each month, before distribution begins, Smith invites all who are waiting to join in a prayer.

While those who Smith helps are quick to thank her for the service and the food, she never takes credit.

“There’s only one perfect man in this world, sissy, and he ain’t me,” she said to one woman who thanked her for the food before hugging her tight. “He’s the one that makes this possible, it’s all Him.”

Smith considers those that visit the food pantry to be a part of the “Miracle Island family.” Once they visit, they always have a place in her home, she said. Many of them have been coming to the pantry for years, and have watched it grow into what it is today.

“There’s so many people that come here now, that need what [Smith] does. If this stopped — if we couldn’t come anymore, or if something ever happened — well, I just don’t want to think about it,” said Patricia Blair, who has been receiving food from the pantry for three years. “A lot of people can’t do without this. There’d be a lot of hungry people around us. There already are, but there’d be a lot more.”

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow@CaityCoyne on Twitter.