In West Virginia Coal Country, Farmers Get Creative To Bridge The Fresh Produce Gap : The Salt At least a quarter of people in West Virginia struggle to afford groceries. In one county, two farmers are finding new ways to help their neighbors sell the food they grow and eat more healthfully.
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In Coal Country, Farmers Get Creative To Bridge The Fresh Produce Gap

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In Coal Country, Farmers Get Creative To Bridge The Fresh Produce Gap

In Coal Country, Farmers Get Creative To Bridge The Fresh Produce Gap

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The economy is a key issue in this year's presidential campaign, and that's especially true for voters in coal country where thousands of miners have lost jobs. In West Virginia, two farmers are doing what they can to keep wealth in their community and provide healthy food to more people. Here's Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

ROXY TODD, BYLINE: In the parking lot of a Five Loaves and Two Fishes Food Bank in McDowell County, squash and basil are growing in 18 tall, white towers without any dirt. It's a farming method called hydroponics. The vegetables sprout from tiny holes as water and nutrients flood the roots. Joel McKinney built this hydroponic garden because it produces a lot of food yet takes up just a little space.

JOEL MCKINNEY: So, like, for right here, I can grow 44 plants, whereas somebody in the ground can only grow four. So I want to do as much vertical space as I can and really amaze people with the poundage of food because I'm growing up instead of out.

TODD: McKinney sells his lettuce to the local high school and makes about $800 every three weeks. He also gives away some of his produce to his parents' food pantry. With so many coal miners out of work now, the number in need of food has soared. McKinney's mother, Linda, sometimes brings food to people's homes, especially if she hears their children going hungry.

LINDA MCKINNEY: And when you take them food, you will find how it's just not food that they need. There's a lot of individuals that are so desperate. These individuals are just surviving.

TODD: In this county, many have given up trying to find a job, and the unemployment rate is almost three times the national average. This is a major problem, says John Deskins of West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. He says McDowell County has had an economic collapse comparable to the Great Depression.

JOHN DESKINS: Talking about tremendous, tremendous losses in a real short - relatively short time frame. We've seen major declines in coal production, major declines and coal employment. But then that spills over to the rest of the economy, right? These coal mining jobs are good, high-paying jobs.

TODD: Families have to make choices. Do they pay rent or buy fresh food? Bradley Wilson teaches geography at West Virginia University, and he says at least a quarter of people in the state struggle to afford groceries.

BRADLEY WILSON: And in places like McDowell, that's compounded by a lack of access to the very kind of food environment necessary to live that healthy lifestyle as stores like Wal-Mart disappear or businesses close up shop because the population's declining.

TODD: Wal-Mart closed its Supercenter in McDowell County this past January. For many residents, they now have to travel over an hour to buy groceries. Now all of them own a car.

SKY EDWARDS: And even when they go grocery shopping at the beginning of the month, they have to pay somebody to take them.

TODD: That's farmer Sky Edwards. He's tried to start a farmer's market in McDowell, but so far it hasn't been successful. So he travels 60 miles roundtrip each week to sell vegetables in Mercer County where residents have more cash to spend on groceries.

EDWARDS: (Inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

TODD: At the market, Edwards often shares cooking tips. Here he explains a recipe for roasted squash to a customer.

EDWARDS: And then once they come out the oven, just drizzle it over it and let that heat soak it in.

TODD: Might have that for dinner tonight (laughter). Thank you. See you next week, guys.

EDWARDS: Have a great weekend.

TODD: Even though Edwards has a good thing going at this market, he'd rather figure out a way to sell back home. For NPR News, I'm Roxy Todd in McDowell County, W. Va.

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