It’s a sweltering hot Monday in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and the kitchen at Community Agricultural Nutritional Enterprises, or CANE, is buzzing with activity.
In an industrial kitchen that was once a high school cafeteria, Brandon Fleming is chopping onions and sliding them into a massive aluminum tray of beans. Once the beans are in the oven, Fleming mops his brow and heads outside to the parking lot, where a small army of teenagers is loading bags and boxes of groceries into the trunks of waiting cars.
“We have forecasted that tomorrow we will hand out our 100,000th meal,” Fleming said as he surveyed the scene.
It’s quite a feat to have accomplished in just three weeks, even more so when you consider that Letcher County, of which Whitesburg is the county seat, is home to just 21,500 people.
The county sits along the Kentucky-Virginia border, in the heart of Appalachian coal country. Since the Louisville and Nashville Railroad laid tracks into the region in 1912, trainfuls and later truckfuls of black gold were taken from these mountains, keeping the lights on across an industrializing America while coal country itself was left behind.
You might still see a coal miner in coal-smudged reflective work pants stopping by the Double Kwik for a cup of coffee, and you’ll still find “Friends of Coal” bumper stickers and long-idled coal tipples as you drive these winding roads. But Letcher County can’t be coal country much longer.
Will it rely on tourism next? Agriculture? Industry? No one knows for sure.
But now there’s a pandemic, and those existential questions have been sidelined, it seems, by a more urgent, more solvable problem: getting bread, milk and broccoli to kitchen tables when many are going without.
Agriculture in Appalachia
Partly because of extraction, and partly because of the miles of mountain roads separating the region from anywhere else, Letcher County ranks among the lowest counties in the nation on measures like per capita income, health conditions like diabetes and COPD, and unemployment.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment in Letcher County was at 12 percent, well above the national average. Now that number is likely about 20 percent.
About 30 percent of Letcher County children didn’t have adequate food, even before the pandemic hit; now, the nonprofit Feeding America has found that eastern Kentucky has some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation.
The statistics are part of what inspired Valerie Horn in 2009 to begin a shared garden in the community of Cowan, as part of the Grow Appalachia program with nearby Berea College. She wanted to connect families in her community to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also to a history of agriculture that predates coal.
“Last year, Grow Appalachia harvested over 250,000 pounds of fresh produce,” Horn says. “At one point a few years back, I was talking to my brother, and I was really excited that we were over 50,000 pounds at the time. My brother is a very practical person, he knows how much work it is to get that much out of a garden. So he goes, ‘Harrumph. That’s as much as a coal truck.’ Since then, I have enjoyed that image, of a coal truck full of fresh produce.”
The CANE community kitchen emerged from the Grow Appalachia garden as a place for farmers to produce value-added goods like jams and pickles, and for people of all backgrounds to sit together and enjoy a free meal prepared with local foods.
Now it’s the staging ground for a massive operation getting free food to 2,400 children and 1,000 families, from McRoberts on one end of the county to Gordon, an hour away, on the other.
“Without really understanding how big this project was, we decided to do it, and to take that challenge,” Horn says.
The program is funded by the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program, which is designed to provide healthy meals to children in low-income families when school is out for the summer. In normal years, children gather in a central location to share a sit-down meal, but because of the pandemic, the USDA has permitted program sponsors instead to provide meal kits to eligible families.
“What a meal kit means is, it’s ingredients for breakfasts for seven days and lunches for seven days,” Horn says. “My understanding is that it lasts until the pandemic is over; my latest notice is that we’re good through August 31.”
The program is a massive logistical lift for Horn, Fleming and a small crew of other leaders.
Many in Letcher County lack access to internet service, so some needy children don’t get registered, and some families have to be called to make sure they make their pickup. A fair share of Letcher County children live with grandparents or other family members, meaning elderly people who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus are often the ones swinging through the pickup lines behind the CANE kitchen.
Transportation is another challenge. Horn throws up her hands, imagining the hassle of getting a baby, a toddler and a first-grader ready and into the car, then navigating miles of treacherous mountain roads to the county seat.
That’s why Horn has partnered with volunteer fire departments across the county, and it’s why a jovial man named Allen Cornett picks up 22 boxes of food from the Whitesburg community kitchen. He loads them into the back of an ambulance and drives them 30 minutes to the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department.
Everybody calls him Red Allen, or just Red.
“I used to be red-headed, but I’m not now,” Cornett says with a laugh, lifting a baseball cap to reveal long gray hair.
Cornett is new to food distribution. He doesn’t really know what the CANE Kitchen is, or how this free food got there. But he and his wife spend the morning calling 22 families in the Gordon area to make sure they knew it was pick-up day.
“We’re volunteering to help out, do this for the summer months, plus I guess with this virus-19 going around, too,” Cornett says.
Horn says she knew that CANE would need to partner with people like Cornett and groups like the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department. Like many families around here, seven generations of Horn’s family have lived in the same holler, passing food from one front porch to the next.
Not too long ago, when Horn’s mother started going to the Whitesburg high school, she had only been to the county seat three times in her life. Now, Horn might make the same trip three times a day. But the cognitive distance remains.
“For her, in the holler that she grew up in, in Scuttle Hole Gap, coming to Whitesburg was a big deal, and there was a divide between the communities and the county seat of Whitesburg. So I would think that sometimes, families would just be more comfortable if it’s their neighbor that they know that is distributing the milk and the box of food.”
Still, about half of the families registered for the program choose to pick up their groceries in Whitesburg, at the old city high school given new life as a community gathering place.
A declining population and school consolidation left this great hulking building empty; local agriculture, free concerts and farm-to-table food for anyone who wants it brought the building back to life.
“It’s like the Velveteen Rabbit,” Horn says. “Every time we use the space, it gets a little more real.”
This story was produced with America Amplified, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. America Amplified is using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism.
Behind This Story
Sydney Boles produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Q: What did the people you talked to say about the experience of being interviewed for public media?
Sydney Boles: It can be intimidating to have a reporter put a microphone in your face, and people often tell me they’re worried about not sounding smart enough. But the truth is, everyone’s an expert in their own lived experience, and they’ll show you that if you give them time to trust you.
Q: What surprised you about this type of community engagement?
SB: When I let go of my own assumptions about what the story was, people were more open and more thoughtful with me in return. People will tell you what’s important to them if you let them.
Q: What lessons do you have for others who want to do the same?
SB: If you’re finding people aren’t returning your calls, or if scheduling interviews feels like pulling teeth, it may be because you’re asking people to talk to you about things that just don’t matter to them. Ask folks what’s going on for them. It might just lead you to your next story.