Hungry in the Land of Milk and Honey

By Sister Kathy Curtis

Born and raised in Richmond Kentucky, Alisha Mays grew up hungry. “There were many days that all we had to eat was Totino’s pizza rolls drenched in ranch dressing,” she told a group attending the recent Hunger Dialogue gathering at Berea College. Alisha and I were part of a breakout session led by Dr. Nicole Breazeale, Associate Professor of Sociology at Western Kentucky University. The session was on storytelling and the positive impact telling one’s own hunger story can have on social change. Alisha told us what it was like to grow up in poor and hunger.

While the bulk of her story is hers to tell, I can tell you that Alisha, a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, is currently working on her master’s degree with Dr. Breazeale at WKU in Glasgow. Her theme is self-provisioning in eastern Kentucky with a special emphasis on the social relationship that exists around home gardening. She explained that self-provisioning includes things like hunting, fishing, foraging and most relevant for her purposes, growing a vegetable garden.

Alisha and I first met when she came to Floyd County to meet families who were growing home vegetable gardens. She spent two months sitting on people’s porches and hearing their stories. During the Hunger Dialogue gathering she told of one of her last days in eastern Kentucky before heading back to Bowling Green.

It was August and Alisha was visiting a family that had befriended her while she was in Floyd County,“It was pouring the rain and because I don’t do so good at driving holler roads in the rain, I was sitting on the porch waiting for it to stop. I looked around me at all the corn and the tomatoes. There was a garden in front and another big garden next to that; the neighbors had a garden too. All around me was food!   [As a child] I remembered hearing a stat once that food has to travel 1400 miles to get to your plate and I remembered thinking “Yes!” because there isn’t enough in the world to feed everybody and that’s why I am hungry.” Talking about her time in Floyd County, Alisha went on to say “I have never seen so much food in my life. I have been in grocery stores but this was different.”

By listening to their stories, Alisha had built a relationship with the family she was visiting and she knew that if she were hungry they would be totally fine with her picking some corn or digging potatoes. Those of us who live in the mountains know this to be true. Care of family and neighbor is ingrained in Appalachian people. In an east Kentucky holler, Alisha experienced a food system built on relationships. Unfortunately, that system does not translate well in our current culture.

Kentucky’s food system is broken, especially for those who live in chronic poverty. Even here in the mountains, too few people know how to grow and preserve food for their families even if they have the land and the physical ability to grow it themselves. Too little healthy food is found at regional food pantries. Few and far between are green spaces where people can grow even some of their food needs. But, there are signs here in Kentucky that this situation is changing.

For example, Berea College’s Grow Appalachia program is, the largest home gardening program in the United States, helps families meet their food needs by providing hands-on training and resources. Grow Appalachia currently works with “communities in six states throughout central Appalachia.” Their mission is, “working to combat food insecurity and malnutrition”. Grow Appalachia and its partners have worked directly with more than 4,300 families to produce nearly three million pounds of healthy, organic produce.”

Another example is In an effort to reduce food waste and meet the needs of both Kentucky farmers and hungry citizens, the Kentucky Association of Food Banks (KAFB) has developed its Farms to Food Banks Program. According to its website in 2016 the Farm to Food Banks Program benefitted hungry Kentuckian in all 120 counties. 385 Kentucky farmers from 67 counties were paid an average of $2000 for their surplus and second grade produce. And the KAFB, through their seven-member food banks and 520 partner agencies, distributed 3,110,600 pounds of fresh produce that otherwise would have been plowed under.

And finally, in the spring of 2016 Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles launched the  Kentucky Hunger Initiative. The first-of-its-kind effort in Kentucky brings together farmers, charitable organizations, faith groups, community leaders, and government entities to help reduce hunger in Kentucky. Commissioner Quarles has made reducing hunger, in both the rural and urban parts of Kentucky, a major priority during his time in office.

With input directly through community, the Kentucky Hunger Initiative task force has developed three goals to address Kentucky’s growing hunger problem:

Goal 1: Build and expand collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors that will minimize hunger in Kentucky.

Goal 2: Strengthen Kentucky’s food-distribution infrastructure to enable farmers to better serve the needs of Kentuckians.

Goal 3: Increase education and public awareness of hunger that affects Kentuckians of all ages.

Right about now you may be wondering why I even bring these statistics and organizations up. After all, Breaking Beans is about telling the story of farming and the local food system in eastern Kentucky. Well, I used to say that food system work is collaborative work because, “everybody eats”. But after hearing Alisha’s story, I realize that is not true. According to the Kentucky Association of Food Banks, “Over 700,000 Kentuckians, or 1 in 6, do not always know where their next meal will come from. More than 1 in 5 of Kentucky’s children lack consistent access to enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle.”

Hunger persists in Kentucky because it remains faceless. That’s why Alisha’s story is so important, and far too common. In a state that has the agricultural heritage that Kentucky has, that is unacceptable.

If you feel the same, here are some ways that you can help.

  • Start in your own community by finding out what your local food pantry needs and get it for them. Most of them need volunteers more than they need food. Check the Kentucky Association of Food Banks website for a pantry near you.
  • Start a home or community garden and share with your friends and neighbors. Grow Appalachia is a great place to start.
  • Join Community Farm Alliance. Our Vision is a food system that provides nutritious food for Kentuckians in a manner that is socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable. We envision a system vital to the state’s economy.
  • Write your own hunger story and tell it. The only shameful thing about hunger in our country is that it still exists.

Imagine sitting on the front porch of a house at the head of the holler surrounded by corn, beans, tomatoes and okra and thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful we live in a place where good food is accessible to all.”