Broken Plate
Jan 23, 2017 · 4 min read

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 percent — four times the national average.

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 percent — four times the national average.

The county is nestled in the southern West Virginia mountains, where the roads are curvy and narrow, and cell service is limited. Food access in McDowell is low, and many of the county’s residents struggle 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 , 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 2015, there were 35 mines in McDowell. Only 13 remained in January 2016. Linda McKinney also noticed how the mine closures affected the county’s population. “We can blame it on the mines, because that was our major industry here.”

Linda McKinney gives a tour of the food bank’s main storage area. The food bank has received significantly fewer donations since the closing of the local Walmart. Photo by Aishina Shaffer.

Linda serves as director of the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.Va. The food bank has moved enough food to supplement the needs of roughly half of McDowell’s population of 22,113.

Backpack programs help 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. And, as Linda says, the community is close-knit. “You never meet a stranger — very rarely — in McDowell County,” she says.

Linda’s son, Joel, wants to see change that will help bring life back into the county.

Joel McKinney looks on at his hydroponic garden outside the Five Loaves & Two Fishes Food Bank in Kimball, W.Va. McKinney found the dusty towers in the food bank’s storage, and said that he knew he could do something with them. Photo by Aishina Shaffer.

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. And although those hills make farming in West Virginia difficult, he saw an opportunity in the midst of a struggling region. Joel looked around McDowell and thought, “if there’s nothing here, I’ll create it.” He had work to do, and people to feed through an emerging method in agriculture: hydroponic gardening.

Hydroponic gardening is growing plants in water without soil. 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 McKinney’s hydroponic towers supply lettuce plants with water and nutrients with a pump. Hydroponics are an innovative option for farmers living in areas with infertile soil. Photo by Aishina Shaffer.

Joel’s hydroponic towers grow different varieties of lettuce outside the food bank. Hydroponics allows crops to grow 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 his operation, but he hasn’t received any government money. “They haven’t given us a penny since he’s nontraditional … he’s not in-ground.” However, the people of the area believe in his efforts, and he recently held a successful GoFundMe campaign.

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. Photo taken by Rayla Claypool.

Joel did what he could to supply the school system’s demand for healthy foods. He believes there is hope for the county, and that the end of coal isn’t the end of McDowell. “Eventually this place can be turned around, it’s just going to take time.”

Broken Plate

An ongoing conversation about our food system and how it impacts us.

    Broken Plate

    Written by

    Broken Plate

    An ongoing conversation about our food system and how it impacts us.

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade