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What Happens When Walmart Closes in One Coal Community?

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Roxy Todd. WVPB
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Joel McKinney stands beside a hydroponic tower that is part of his farm outside the Five Loaves Food Pantry

Eating your fruits and veggies is good for you, but it’s not always an easy choice. On this episode, we explore some of the challenges, choices, and barriers to eating healthy. Sometimes it’s the cost, or poor choices, sometimes it’s limited access because they live in what’s called a food desert.

About 45 million Americans have trouble affording food. That number rose dramatically during the last recession and the problem has not gone away. Here in West Virginia, food insecurity is even more widespread, according to a study conducted by West Virginia University's Foodlink project.

Health experts say that greasy, salty foods can be bad for your health, especially when you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. West Virginians rank second in the nation for obesity, and third for diabetes. The problem is complicated, and there are a lot of reasons people eat the way they do. Even when people can afford groceries, that doesn’t mean they buy healthy food.

It seems so many times, people are quick to dismiss us Appalachians and assume we just don’t know how to make good decisions when it comes to our health. But it’s more complicated than that. On this show, we’ll hear from folks in one rural Appalachian county to find out their challenges to eating fresh food.

New Challenges for Low Income Community When Grocery Stores Close

In Kimball of McDowell County, West Virginia, earlier this year, the Walmart superstore closed. It was one of many Walmart closures across the United States. In Kimball, 140 people were laid off when the Walmart closed, and many in the community lost their main grocery store.

Roxy Todd recently took a road trip through McDowell County to talk with residents about the superstore's closure.

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Vacant Walmart building in Kimble, W.Va.

Helping Feed People in Need

The closing of the Walmart in McDowell County also affected the local food pantry, which last year  relied on donations from Walmart to help feed 11,000 people. Linda McKinney runs the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food pantry in Kimble.

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Linda McKinney cooks her grandmother's recipe for pasta sauce at the Five Loaves Food Pantry kitchen. She's using the sauce on spaghetti pizza.

McKinney says  the superstore’s closing has actually inspired her family to rethink how they get food for the pantry.

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Linda McKinney runs the Five Loaves Food Pantry in McDowell County with her husband Bob.

Low Income Communities Struggle With Diet Related Diseases

In parts of Appalachia like West Virginia, people struggle with poor health and even low life expectancy. But there are people in these communities, like McDowell, devoted to their towns-working to try new things that might help improve the economy. There's no magic bullet to improving those outcomes, but finding ways to get fresh produce onto the tables of all people in Appalachia, might be one part of a solution.

It's Not Easy Starting a Farmer's Market in Coal Country

There are at least two new farming projects in McDowell County, but growing and selling local foods in the coalfields can be tough. For one thing, there aren’t a lot of customers willing to make the trek out to the farmer’s market.

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Dolly Brown is buying green tomatoes from Sky Edwards at the market in Bluefield, W.Va.
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Sky Edwards and another McDowell County resident Jason Tartt say there are more customers for vegetables at markets in Mercer County, W.Va. and Tazewell County, Va.
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Jason Tartt, McDowell County Farms

We'll also hear how what the farmers' market in Whitesburg, KY did to bring more customers to buy vegetables. One program the market partners with is a local health clinic where doctors prescribe vegetables.  It’s called a “Farmacy”, and program accepts vouchers from people with chronic diseases who also meet eligibility and health guidelines. WMMT’s Kelli Haywood stopped by the market to see how things are going- one year into the project.

New Jobs for Appalachian Farmers?

The Appalachian Regional Commission and the Obama Administration recently awarded $38.8 million to 29 projects working to improve the region's economy. Two of them are focusing on local agriculture

Music in today’s show was provided by The Clash, Andy Agnew Jr., Ben Townsend, Ona, Jonathan Richman, Michael Howard, and Jake Schepps.

Our What’s in a Name theme music is by Marteka and William.

Our producer is Roxy Todd. Our editor is Ibby Caputo. Our audio mixer is Zander Aloi.

We’d love to hear from you. You can e-mail us at feedback@wvpublic.org. Find us on Twitter @InAppalachia or @JessicaYLilly.

Jessica can be heard on Inside Appalachia and West Virginia Morning the station’s daily radio news program. You can reach her at jlilly@wvpublic.org
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.