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While the economy has improved in many areas of the country, it's getting worse in others. One in 8 Americans still struggles to have enough to eat. That's 42 million people. In some rural counties, hunger is on the rise. And groups trying to help these communities are also feeling the squeeze. NPR's Pam Fessler traveled to Southwest Virginia to learn how one area is coping.
WILLIS SMITH: OK, folks, let me have your attention just a minute, OK?
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Willis Smith is trying to get the attention of about 100 people lined up in a park in the small town of Hurley, Va. up in the Appalachian Mountains between Kentucky and West Virginia. Smith wants everyone here to say a quick prayer for the food they're about to receive.
SMITH: The good things come from God. And so we're going to ask a blessing and thank him for this endeavor.
FESSLER: Those waiting on line are mostly elderly. Just about everyone is carrying a plastic laundry basket, which they hope to fill with free groceries.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Hi, Frank. What can I do for you today?
FESSLER: Apples, lettuce, tomato sauce, pasta, bread, even some cakes and cookies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Then I'll stick you some cookies in there and fatten you up a little bit. And how's Lynn today?
FESSLER: A growing number of residents in Buchanan County, about 16 percent, say they struggled to get enough food even though hunger nationally is on the decline. The poverty rate here is 29 percent, twice the national average. And while there's been a slight uptick in coal mining jobs, no one expects conditions to improve anytime soon. Bernice Wolford says the free food is a big help.
BERNICE WOLFORD: 'Cause I got my son where he had a heart transplant - 21. And he's got a two-year-old baby. And he can't find a job or nothing. So I just get out and help him, too.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: One to ten.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: One to ten.
FESSLER: The challenge is the economic distress felt here has also made it harder for the food bank that's trying to help. Feeding America of Southwest Virginia used to run 13 mobile food pantries in this area. Now there are nine.
PAMELA IRVINE: Finding food is a real challenge these days, you know?
FESSLER: CEO Pamela Irvine is showing me the food bank's main warehouse in Roanoke, more than three hours away. Most of the shelves are empty. She says food manufacturers are getting much better at inventory control, so there's less surplus to donate and fewer rejects like dented or mislabeled cans.
IRVINE: They're not making near the mistakes they used to.
FESSLER: Another challenge - coal companies that used to be her biggest donors have gone out of business. And Irvine says other donors are starting to get a little tired of being asked to help feed people now that the recession is over.
IRVINE: They think everybody's recovered. Things look pretty good, right? The unemployment nationally is down. The statewide average is down. You would think Virginia's doing really good. I mean, I heard the governor say last week that, you know, it's the lowest it's been in years. And then I think not in Southwest Virginia, though.
FESSLER: Or in hundreds of other counties where hunger is still pervasive. Feeding America says donations nationally are also slowing down, and it's being felt on the front lines. Some food pantries in Southwest Virginia have had to close due to lack of funds.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'll come back and get mom's in a few minutes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Thank you, hun (ph).
FESSLER: In Clintwood, another Appalachian town, about 150 families still come to the pantry each Tuesday to pick up food. But director Bernard Fleming says it's increasingly difficult to stock up. He gets most of his supplies from Feeding America. When they have less food, so does he. Donations from the local grocery store are also down.
BERNARD FLEMING: Used to, my man would go over there - that guy with the hat on - he does that. He might go over there and get two pick-up truck loads. Now he went over there this morning and got three boxes.
FESSLER: And to be honest, it's not always the most nutritious food. Fleming has to take what he can get. And fresh produce isn't an option because the pantry has no refrigerator. And many of his clients are ill. Judy Rice struggles to get to the counter. She has to lean on a table to catch her breath before asking - in a voice you can barely hear - if they have any food for diabetics.
JUDY RICE: You got anything for diabetics?
FESSLER: A volunteer reluctantly says no.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Maybe when the truck runs, we'll get some in.
FESSLER: So Rice gets the same as everyone else - a box with canned food and pasta but also cookies, candy and a big bag of marshmallows. She says she'll give those to her grandson. She's thankful for what she can get.
RICE: It helps because it gives you something to eat for two or three days when you don't have anything.
FESSLER: Pamela Irvine of Feeding America says that's always the challenge. The healthiest foods are the most expensive and hardest to come by.
IRVINE: I've always struggled with, is any food better than no food because you can't find the right food?
FESSLER: She's concluded that it is, but she still looks for healthier options. Her food bank has joined a co-op of food banks to share fresh produce. They're also working with a local health care provider to deliver more diabetic-friendly meals.
Irvine knows they can't keep feeding more people with limited supplies, so they're also looking at long-term solutions like helping clients find jobs so they don't have to rely on others for food. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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