by Victoria Ware

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated food insecurity and healthcare issues nationwide, impacting people’s lives across demographics and age brackets.

Kanawha County is no exception. It has a food insecurity rate of 11% coupled with 67% of the population residing below the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) 200% poverty threshold. In 2022, the number of children living in poverty within the county amounted to 23.7%. During the height of the pandemic in 2020, the number rose to 26%. Thanks to additional COVID-related benefits, it decreased to 21% in 2021. Now, the number of impoverished children in the area is again on the rise.

During the pandemic, people struggling with hunger in Kanawha County received temporary relief through additional SNAP benefits. Congress enacted temporary increases or emergency allotments of SNAP to combat food insecurity and assist impoverished people. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in the states with emergency allotments, overall poverty was reduced by 10 % and child poverty by 14%.

But these additional benefits ended in March 2023. This, along with record-level inflation, has resulted in increasing food hardship. This reduction in governmental assistance has particularly impacted individuals in Kanawha County.

Vandalyn Justice

Vandalyn Justice is the Social Service Program Coordinator of the Salvation Army in Charleston, West Virginia. She said that since the additional SNAP benefits were severed, she has seen a noticeable increase in people using their food pantry’s services.

Concerning food insecurity, she said, “At first, it was there, definitely—especially for our homeless people and seniors because a lot of them either couldn’t get out or were scared to get out, especially when stuff started shutting down. So, it was harder for people to get food. Then, in the middle—toward the end—when everyone was getting supplemental SNAP benefits, my food pantries went down a lot. So, you could definitely tell how that little bump in SNAP benefits gave people more ability to stretch their dollar through the month. So, I wasn’t quite as needed. But, in March, when they took those away, my pantries have doubled.”

In Kanawha County, children whose parents lack secure employment increased from 13.4% in 2021 to 14.7% in 2022. Public schools within the county operate on the Community Eligibility Provision Program to provide students with no-cost breakfast and lunch. Student access to free food was essentially cut off during quarantine, but now that they’re back at school, kids in Kanawha County’s public schools have access to healthy meals.

That’s not the case with some of the county’s older residents. With food costs rising 6.7% from last year and COVID on the rise in communities across the country, seniors are starting to struggle with the same challenges—protecting themselves from virus spread while accessing community resources.

Faith in Action of the Greater Kanawha Valley is a volunteer program that offers free assistance to people aged 60 and up. The group provides its clients with transportation to medical appointments, help with grocery shopping and minor home repairs. Jennifer Waggener, the Executive Director of Faith in Action, said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults could not visit their physicians and needed food assistance.

Jennifer Waggener

“You couldn’t get them to doctors’ appointments because doctors’ offices were shut down and we couldn’t take them to the store anymore because that was the worst place for them to be,” Waggener said. “We had to work around and develop programs that would enable us to still continue to assist them and make sure that their needs were met despite the pandemic.”

The older population’s increased vulnerability to the virus made venturing out in public to get food and water more risky. Volunteers with Faith in Action tried to mitigate the impact and made it so those 60 and older didn’t have to expose themselves to COVID-19. Waggener said that conditions have improved since people can go out in public and not isolate themselves. However, she noted a lack of doctors in Kanawha County. This puts the older population in the area in a difficult position.

“We now have fewer doctors in the area,” she said. “One of the real significant issues I’ve seen here recently is patients having to wait for hours in a waiting room for an appointment. A lot of these folks are vulnerable and have chronic health issues and have no business sitting in a waiting room for four hours with sick people waiting to see their doctor for a scheduled appointment. That’s just become more and more the reality and that’s pretty frustrating.”

Since the pandemic, an issue that has cropped up nationwide is a shortage of doctors. A report by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation stated that the COVID-19 pandemic put immense stress on healthcare workers and led to burnout and trauma. The physician shortage predated the pandemic, but the conditions that those in the medical field endured further amplified the problem. This issue is something that people in Kanawha County are facing.

“Some social service providers kind of stopped providing services,” Jake Van Horn, Community Impact Officer of Cabin Creek Health Services, said. “It’s very difficult to find providers right now. I think everybody is trying to staff up. So, it’s hard to find providers like physicians, or nurse practitioners or physicians’ assistants, it’s also really difficult to find kind of necessary staff positions like medical assistants or social workers.”

Jake Van Horn

Van Horn said that since the pandemic, for a portion of the population, a mistrust of the healthcare system has arisen. The pandemic not only posed a threat to physical health but mental well-being has also been impacted.

“I think there are a lot of people that became more avoidant during the pandemic,” he said. “I think our political rhetoric has caused mistrust of healthcare for some folks. I think psychologically, a lot of folks now realize that the system can be broken. Whether or not that’s a social statement or a healthcare statement, I’m actually not sure, but the pandemic tested about every system we have. So, I think folks are struggling.”

The pandemic complicated some individuals’ perceptions of the medical field due to misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine. Van Horn said that in the first four months of the vaccine rollout, Cabin Creek Health Systems administered 26,000 COVID-19 vaccines. However, the number of people getting the vaccine dropped after the initial rush.

“That first four months was a real push,” Van Horn said. “That’s a lot of vaccine for an agency like ours to put down. So, a lot of vaccines went out. But basically, if you didn’t get your vaccine in that first few months, you’re not going to.”

The extended period of isolation dealt a heavy blow to mental health across all generations. Waggener said that the quarantine negatively affected the older population in Kanawha County. With people not leaving their homes and being without visits from loved ones, she said she’s sure that it significantly impacted their health. The pandemic had a particularly lasting effect on children’s well-being. The Children’s Hospital Association found increasing rates of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide among kids and teens. The consequences of prolonged quarantines, social distancing, and isolation procedures may continue to affect all demographics, making people apprehensive about accessing needed community resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic essentially brought the world to a standstill. The systems that people relied on were halted, and those who were already struggling with health and hunger were put in a more precarious position. Kanawha County’s food insecurity levels improved due to governmental assistance, but once the help was removed, many people were back in the same place. The shortage of medical staff since the pandemic is also affecting the care people in Kanawha County are receiving. The pandemic did not solely pose a risk to people physically, but also mentally. Children are still reeling from the effects of isolation and developmental delays.

Officials and community leaders in Kanawha County continue working to improve health and hunger conditions after COVID-19. Whether inflation subsides, COVID-19 infection rates fall, or individuals renew their trust in healthcare and social support systems, remains to be seen.

Victoria Ware is a senior Multimedia Journalism major at Marshall University. She is the Opinions and Culture Editor of Marshall’s student-run newspaper, The Parthenon. For her work with Marshall’s student-produced newscast, she received the Dustin Opell Award for MU Report Reporter of the Year. Victoria is an intern at WSAZ-TV. She also enjoys watching films, reading, and singing. 


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