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April 5, 2021

Poverty in the pandemic

How West Virginia nonprofits stayed open to feed the hungry as everything else closed

by Holden Edward Strausser

 

James sat next to his wife, Brittany, on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church in Morgantown and played with a sealed bag of microwavable popcorn in his hands while he talked.

“COVID’s been a headache for us,” he said.

They had just eaten their main meal of the day, consisting of biscuits, fajita meat with rice, fried apples and cake from the lunch line at the Morgantown Community Kitchen, which operates out of Trinity Episcopal.

The couple first met at the kitchen a little more than a year ago. Shortly afterward they got married.

But they did not have a home to move into; Brittany, 26, was living in a tent under a bridge when the couple began their relationship. James, 31, was new to the area, having previously lived in Texas. Brittany showed him where to get free food and the location of the cold weather shelter.  

“We have our own place right now, but we don’t have no food, so we actually come out here to get something to eat,” said Brittany. “They really help us a lot.”

Founded in 1984, Community Kitchen, Inc. is a non-denominational organization with a mission of providing a free nutritional meal “in a safe, clean, uplifting environment for the hungry in the community.”

Originally, the kitchen was part of Trinity Episcopal Church, but over time it became a community-based organization. Because it is still based in the Trinity Episcopal Church building, it is still answerable to church leadership in how the facilities are used.  

The kitchen serves people without regard for age, religion, economic status or any other social criteria.

It has remained open through the coronavirus pandemic, but the operating costs have risen. The Community Kitchen has received six emergency grants to get through the pandemic so far.

​James applauds the Community Kitchen’s generosity in providing food for both him and his wife, sometimes even when they are not both present.

“They’re really understanding here,” he said. “I’ve come up here several times and I’ve needed an extra lunch for her, and a lot of times they didn’t have it but they would go out of their way to make sure that she was able to eat, I was able to eat, and a lot of times I’ve come up and got one tray just so she could eat.”

But while their marriage started in the past year, so did the pandemic.

 

“You know, I caught COVID about three and a half months ago, and I was down, down and out, sick real bad,” said James. “My wife had to do everything. It wasn’t easy for her.”

Brittany has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which makes outside living and mask wearing difficult for her. James has asthma, which makes it harder for him to wear a mask.

Like other clients at the Community Kitchen, the couple is grateful that it has remained open. But the health restrictions that the kitchen operates under are less than ideal. Where in the past, they could come into the church building to eat a meal at a table, now James and Brittany can only get food at the door.

They have to sit outside to eat, whether it is sunny and warm or raining and cold.

James and Brittany sit on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church after eating a meal from the Morgantown Community Kitchen.

James and Brittany sit on the steps of Trinity Episcopal Church after eating a meal from the Morgantown Community Kitchen.

Brittany (left) and James (right) sit on the steps of Trinity Episcopal after eating a meal provided by the Morgantown Community Kitchen.

Changes at the Kitchen

For the Morgantown Community Kitchen, COVID-19 has meant a dramatic overhaul of procedures.

The kitchen generally serves between 70 and 110 meals per day. It is staffed entirely by volunteers, and though it has an operating budget, it mostly runs on donations.

Some donations come from local businesses, some come from community members, and others come from chains like Kroger, McDonald’s, and Olive Garden.

Meals at the Community Kitchen now must be packaged individually in plastic foam “to-go” boxes, meaning that operations are more expensive and time-consuming.

Volunteers wear masks and practice social distancing. The number of volunteers also has been cut nearly in half.  

“Before COVID, we would probably have six or seven volunteers, you know, prepping food, serving, manning the soup and salad stations,” said Richard Dumas, a Community Kitchen Board member. “Now we have it down to three or four people at the most that are in the kitchen at any point in time preparing food and serving.”

The restrictions also mean a limitation on the type of people who can volunteer. Before the pandemic, West Virginia University students and missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints frequently volunteered at the kitchen. Now, only retired volunteers can work there because the Community Kitchen cannot track whether the students and missionaries have been exposed to the virus.

This comes with some risk for the retired volunteers, who serve food to clients who often arrive without masks. According to the CDC, adults between the ages of 65 and 74 are 40 times more likely to require hospitalization from a COVID-19 case and 1,300 times more likely to die from the virus. That number only increases with age.   

But the largest impact on the Kitchen is that its clients can no longer eat indoors. Since March 2020, the indoor dining area has been closed. Instead, clients must come to the door of the church.

In the summer, outdoor dining is no problem. But as the weather gets colder, the situation becomes less pleasant. Clients eat outside in the rain, the cold and the snow.  For many, the Community Kitchen provides their only meal for that day.

“I just hate to see them sitting out there in the snow eating, or sitting in the rain,” volunteer Amy Wodzenski said. “But they do.”

Volunteers arrive early in the morning to set up the kitchen. They decide what to cook from the largely donated inventory in the kitchen’s storage rooms. Deciding what to cook is simple; knowing how much to cook is difficult. The client number fluctuates from day to day, depending on the weather, what is being served and whether any monetary assistance has come in recently. 

“You never know exactly,” said Jeff Nieman, a volunteer. “You think it’s going to be a rainy day, you’re only going to have 50, and then if you end up having 70, you’re scrambling around at the end trying to get something else to fix.”

The volunteers lay out all the individual serving in advance, and systematically put each part of the meal into the boxes. The meals generally consist of an entrée, a side and a dessert.

Once this is done, the volunteers move the boxes to a table at the door of the church, where they can be served to anyone who asks for a meal.

Volunteers Richard Dumas and Jeff Nieman examine boxes of donated food delivered to the Community Kitchen by supporter Russell Kincaid. The volunteers make sure the food is usable then record it in the inventory.

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Volunteer Richard Dumas prepares rice for the day’s meal.

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Amy Wodzenski sets up the table to serve meals at the door of the church.

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Volunteers Richard Dumas and Jeff Nieman examine boxes of donated food delivered to the Community Kitchen by supporter Russell Kincaid. The volunteers make sure the food is usable then record it in the inventory.

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"This is something I feel I can do."

​​Bill Hagerty, the president of the Morgantown Community Kitchen board of directors, wishes that things could be different.

He had friendly relationships with many of the clients at the Community Kitchen before COVID-19. Now, he struggles to remember names.

“This has separated us from them to such an extent, that today I ran into someone who I knew his name so well before and I still haven’t thought of it,” Hagerty said.

In spite of COVID-19, Hagerty tries to keep up his friendship with a client whose disability caused his hands to shake uncontrollably.

“We do special things for him, like fill his coffee mug and put it in his backpack for him,” Hagerty said.  

In addition to the distance that COVID-19 restrictions have made in his relationships with clients, Hagerty has been forced to have difficult conversations with his normally close-knit group of volunteers. When several volunteers did not follow social distancing regulations, Hagerty had to ask them to stop coming for safety reasons.

The son of a coal miner, Hagerty worked as a design professor at the West Virginia University Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

“As a child, I had a very good home life, but it was sparse,” Hagerty said. “We were provided for, but I was aware of all the difficulties that a lot of families had. And there were a lot of people that I went to school with who had difficulties.”

These experiences led Hagerty to volunteer his time helping out those who were less fortunate than himself.

Hagerty got his start at the kitchen after retiring, and subsequently feeling guilty for spending too much of his time reading Scandinavian mystery novels. He began to volunteer at various charities, including at Empty Bowls before his retirement and at Christian Help’s food pantry once he was retired.

Hagerty’s friend, Ernie, an Army veteran, convinced him to volunteer at the Morgantown Community Kitchen. Soon Hagerty became a staple of the kitchen, then the kitchen manager, and then eventually the president of the board.

“I was pushed into being the vice president, but I made it clear I would agree to be the vice president because they needed something on paper to say that there was someone, but I was not going to be the president,” Hagerty said. After no one else would agree to it, Hagerty decided that he needed to step up, with help from his friend Cheryl Pritchard as vice president.

Hagerty is glad to work at the kitchen, as it interests him and gives him a way to help those who need it.

“At my age now where there are certain things I can’t do,” he said. “This is something I feel I can do.”

Bill Hagerty, self-submitted photograph.

What clients have to say about COVID-19 and the Community Kitchen

Jay

On COVID-19: "It's all out of wack. Just how they make it blow out of proportion. Just like you hear one thing, you hear another, the side effects and everything."

Johnny

"My life ain't changed any on that part."

Matt

"It's a lot harder, especially wintertime when it's cold."

Norman

"It was a lot nicer [when the Kitchen operated indoors]. But now I think they should do it this way because of the virus."

"A real learning experience."

Serving in a similar role to Hagerty, Beverly Van Metre is the president of the board of directors at the Congregational Cooperative Action Project (CCAP) Loaves and Fishes in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Her church was one of the two charter churches that founded CCAP in 1982, which is how she found out about the organization.

CCAP Loaves and Fishes is an entirely volunteer Christian organization with the mission of making “the church visible in Berkeley County.” It provides financial aid with bills, prescriptions, medical costs, eye exam referrals and eyeglasses, as well as work shoes and food supplies to last a household for a month.  

She has been on the board of Loaves and Fishes since January 2014, a year before she retired from working at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs medical center in Martinsburg.

As a case worker, she helped veterans with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. She discovered while working there that she was drawn to patients from underserved populations.

As her retirement approached, she knew she would need to do something or risk getting bored. Two months after retiring in January 2015, Van Metre began volunteering at CCAP Loaves and Fishes in addition to serving on the board.

Van Metre said she was motivated by her upbringing, her Episcopalian faith and her beliefs about how underserved individuals should be treated.

“Usually they deserve better than they get,” said Van Metre. “And I’ve always gotten better than I deserved. I really thought it was important to continue that type of work into retirement.”

Van Metre finds the work rewarding, as the people she helps are mostly grateful for her efforts.

In the past year, Van Metre’s responsibilities at Loaves and Fishes increased when she was chosen to become president of the board of directors.

 

This role took on new importance in March 2020, when the organization was forced to deal with the pandemic.

The organization had to adapt quickly to COVID-19, closing down briefly before reopening to follow CDC guidelines. Social distancing, mask wearing and an appointment schedule were set up to help keep clients and volunteers safe from the virus.

Clients were at first instructed to call ahead to make appointments. However, this soon hit an unexpected snag because the volunteers were reliant on calling clients to arrange appointments.

“It was a real learning experience,” said Van Metre. “People who are living in poverty have phones, but a lot of times, they only turn them on when they need them.”

This is because many people who live below the poverty line use services like Tracfone, which charges by the minute. If a robocall comes through, answering will consume the user’s minutes. To avoid paying extra money in phone bills, many impoverished people keep their phones off unless they are making a call.   

CCAP Loaves and Fishes also discovered that its client numbers began to drop off in early April 2020. With a closer examination, Van Metre discovered that this was a side effect of the stimulus checks that had been sent out by the federal government.

Like Community Kitchen, Inc. in Morgantown, Loaves and Fishes is staffed by elderly retired people. This has led to some volunteers leaving the organization due to COVID-19 health concerns.

Van Metre has been grateful for the donations that the organization has received, coming from churches, corporations and even some people who donated their stimulus checks.

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Beverly Van Metre, self-submitted photograph.

"People, forgiveness and compassion"

Richard Dumas first came to West Virginia during his four years in the Army. He was originally a native of Massachusetts, from a large family of 10 siblings.

He liked the area and went to Marshall University to get his graduate degree. After graduation he decided to stay.

Dumas takes pride in working at the kitchen, going out of his way to ensure that his clients not only have something that is worth eating, but something that looks presentable.

“My reasoning for doing it is really I don’t like to see people not have what they need,” Dumas said. “My father always beat into our heads: people, forgiveness and compassion. This is one way that I can really ensure that folks have a meal.”

 

 

 

Dumas started volunteering as his schedule allowed at the Community Kitchen while he was working for BB&T Bank. Once he retired, he came to work at the kitchen every day that it was open. He cut that time down to three times a week to avoid burnout.

Dumas serves on the board of the kitchen. He plans ahead for meals and how to get ingredients.

In his weekly volunteering, Dumas often works at the door of the church, handing out meals to clients as they come.

He has a cheerful demeanor and is often wearing a smile under his mask as he works.

 

“To be honest with you, the best part is the appreciation that the clients show,” Dumas said. “We have one client who will give us a dollar every once in a while, because that’s his way of giving back. Another client comes down on Sundays and picks up the cigarette butts.”

 

For Dumas, what makes coming to the kitchen worthwhile is his ability to make the clients’ lives “just a little bit better.”  

Richard Dumas

Richard Dumas poses for a photograph before the Community Kitchen opens for the day.

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Richard Dumas hands a meal to client.

Moving forward

It is unknown when things will return to normal for organizations like the Morgantown Community Kitchen and CCAP Loaves and Fishes.

“I don’t think we’re going to see an end to it anytime soon,” said Dumas said. "I think there are too many people that are reluctant to get the vaccine."

With the coming warmth of the spring and summer months, things will be easier on the clients who will not be forced to eat outside in the cold. But the timeline for reopening may be longer than that.

“We’re probably looking after summer,” said Jim Chapman, an Army veteran who volunteers as the kitchen manager. “Hopefully, getting them back into the dining room, and maybe at a more limited capacity, more with social distancing.”

In the meantime, people like James and Brittany continue to rely on charity for their meals. The Community Kitchen’s door stays open, even if no one can come inside.

 

For more information about the Morgantown Community Kitchen, visit MorgantownCommunityKitchen.com.

For more information about CCAP Loaves and Fishes, visit CCAPLoavesAndFishes.com.

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Amy Wodzenski sets up for lunch at the Community Kitchen.