By Rayla Claypool, Jazmine Hawes, Alison Kaiser, Aishina Shaffer

Wealth, prosperity and security are not terms that describe McDowell County, W.Va. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, McDowell’s unemployment rate is 12.9% — four times the national average.

The county is nestled in the mountains, where the roads are curvy and narrow, and the cell service is limited. Food access in McDowell is low, and most of the county struggles to stay fed, let alone access healthy options.

Linda McKinney, director of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.Va. comments on how twisty windy the roads are in McDowell County.

The area’s remoteness and steady decline of employment, can often make it difficult for some from day to day. Most of McDowell County was built around coal mines; towns like Welch and Kimball used to have booming economies with jobs and industry based in coal mining.

“In the heart of the mountain” is a good way to describe McDowell County. This lump of coal sits in Ya’sou, a family-owned Greek restaurant in Kimball, W.Va. The owner, Markella Gianato, has seen the shop through three floods and a lot of years.

However, mines have been shutting down over the last decade, forcing a lot of people the leave the area. In just 2015, there were 35 mines in McDowell. Only 13 remained in January 2016.

Chelsea Hornbuckle grew up in McDowell County and has since moved to Wyoming County. She still comes to McDowell County to shop.

Linda McKinney also noticed how the mine closures affected the county’s economy.

Linda serves as director of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.Va. The food bank has moved enough food to serve roughly half of McDowell’s population.

Backpack programs feed local children over the summer. Baby clothing is available for new parents who don’t have enough. Hygiene products that may be difficult to get ahold of are even kept at the food bank.

Despite the decline and the hardship, the people of McDowell haven’t given up. Linda’s son Joel wants to see change, change that will help bring life back into the county.

Joel McKinney stands outside of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank on Nov. 4, 2016. He left McDowell at 18 and thought he’d never return. The food bank is owned and operated by his parents, and after many years of working for a railroad company, Joel soon began to hear the West Virginia hills calling him home. He had work to do, and people to feed through an emerging method in agriculture: hydroponic gardening.

Hydroponic gardening simply means soil-less growing. The years of coal and strip mining have taken a toll on the natural wealth in the ground around McDowell — so Joel figured out how to grow above ground.

Joel’s hydroponic towers grow different varieties of lettuce outside the food bank. Hydroponics allows crops to be grown in areas unsuitable for farming by using pumps to supply plants with the water and nutrients they need to survive.

Unfortunately, the hydroponic project hasn’t gained traction in the state government. Joel sought state grant funding to help expand what he can do with the towers, but he has been denied.

The hydroponic towers are a symbol of community for the people of McDowell County. Joel sells the lettuce he grows to the county schools as part of a farm-to-school program he helped create.

Joel did what he could to supply the school system’s demand for healthy foods. He said he believes there is hope for the county, and that the end of coal isn’t the end of McDowell.

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