Michael Tierney, Step by Step


Despite weather that can’t seem to make up its mind whether it’s December or March, lots of people KNOW it’s March, and know that it’s time to start nurturing seeds and plants so that come late spring into fall, we’ll have an abundant harvest that will take us through the winter months when fresh food is hard to come by.

As Covid and its precautions wind down (we pray!) it seems timely to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on food security, and home gardening’s contribution to helping people weather this two year storm.

A strange byproduct and even benefit from the Covid period has been an apparent decrease in child hunger and overall food insecurity in our area.  In over 40 years as a children’s and family advocate in southern West Virginia this has been the first season in my experience that lack of food hasn’t been at the top of the list for many of my neighbors.  I first came to West Virginia as a 20 year old flood relief volunteer in 1978, a year after the devastating April 1977 Tug River flood. People not having enough food to put on the table, or frustration with the powers (that be, for not doing everything they could to make sure that summer food programs proliferated) has always been in the top five.

This relative stability has come from a lot of hard work.  There were gaps in our counties of people without transportation inhibiting their ability to get to food distribution centers. This usually occurred in area middle schools if there was a lack of reliable transportation or gas money. Neighbors volunteered to pick up food for those who couldn’t drive (and schools conveniently looked the other way if there were rules about families having to sign out only their own food). At Step by Step we wrote in gas cards to Covid emergency grants to help those neighbors that had the heart but not necessarily the $ to be a team leader for their holler.

Even when schools were delivering food on bus runs we discovered there were more subtle challenges.  Our food security national service member (match covered by Grow Appalachia) was riding the bus to help with distribution. A 9 year old showed up at the road’s edge with the hope of collecting food for his family. At this point the schools were delivering food twice per week, so it would have been impossible for him to cart milk jugs and food bags for he and his three siblings back home. Our volunteers accompanied him to find a single mom with a baby and two preschoolers’–a crew that it would not have been safe to wait at the edge of the road for the bus.  Making sure families got the food that was available took a lot of out of the box thinking.

So did bringing on gardeners during a time that we could not meet face to face.  We had unprecedented interest in gardening this past two seasons–with 50% or more of our gardeners new each year. We could not in good conscience bring people together in a meeting room, but we are grateful for the incredible workshops that have been available online, and for those who didn’t have the bandwidth for that technology, the creativity of Facebook group facilitators.  Our Facebook groups have become the club to belong to, combining mentoring from old to new gardeners and of course bragging rights with pictures of counters full of the day’s yield.

We should be able to expand beyond waving through masks when people pick up their fertilizer, tools, plants and seeds this spring. But we will be vigilant if there are new surges and we have to protect each other. We always have a supply of N95 masks to give to any gardener or family that needs them.

And we pray that the wisdom of a 40% reduction in child poverty nationwide will sink in to our policy makers and they will reconsider the cut offs of child tax credits.  That has made the huge difference and support for families to feed their children, with climbing gas prices, and increases at the grocery store, are needed more than ever. Some of that will come when we preserve the notion that the common good includes that people don’t go hungry, which we seemed to reclaim during Covid.  And some of it is responding to doing everything we can, as Grow Appalachia has for over a decade, to make sure that people have the means to grow their own food.