By Matthew Schaffer 

West Virginia has fought a long-standing battle against poverty, especially childhood poverty. The state ranks among the highest in the nation, with a childhood poverty rate of 25% in 2022 and a food insecurity rate of 14%—both rates that have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This is no exception for the children of Lincoln County. With a population of only 19,901, the county faces a 15.2% food insecurity rate and a childhood poverty rate of 33.2% in 2022. This marks a significant increase from just a year earlier when the childhood poverty rate was 25.9%, with 920 children in the county now facing food insecurity, affecting 20% of those under 18 years old. 

These increases are related to the expiration of several pandemic-era social benefit policies that helped lift many families out of poverty. These policies included the child tax credit, stimulus checks, rental assistance and, most importantly, expanded SNAP benefit allotments. In fact, according to a report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, these covid era policies helped reduce childhood poverty to only 7.8% nationally in 2020. 

Congress adopted the extended benefits to ease the economic hardships placed on families following the mass layoffs during the COVID-19 lockdowns. In 2019, prior to the pandemic-era policies, Lincoln County faced a childhood poverty rate of 39.1%, with these extended benefits lowering the childhood poverty rate by 13.2%.  

However, since the expiration of these policies in March 2023, many Lincoln County families have been forced to rely on alternative resources such as food drives and pantries to help feed their children. 

Kerri Smith, a Lincoln County High School Social Worker and former foster care worker, helps organize food pantries, food drives, and weekend and holiday bags for students at the high school. 

Kerri Smith

“Once the benefits had stopped, I think our students and our families are in more need than ever,” Smith said. “We’re lucky that during the pandemic we had food boxes that we gave out to everybody. It did not matter your income or anything. If you need food, we got it for you.” 

Smith works with local community organizations, churches and charities, such as Facing Hunger Food Bank, to get donations for students, which can include anything from food to clothing and hygiene products. 

“We have churches that will send us monthly donations. We do a big food drive at LCHS where our students bring things so that they understand that not everyone has what they need, but probably 50% of my kids need food from the pantry, so I don’t expect them to bring stuff in.” Smith said. 

As beneficial as these drives have been to the community, Smith believes that there is a still stigma surrounding kids needing assistance, with some not even realizing they’re in need of assistance.  

“They’re not ones to go out and ask for help,” Smith said, “You have a bigger gap there of kids who are poor and don’t realize it or are in need.” 

Smith also cites a lack of resources as another problem she faces in feeding students with donations, and volunteers are always needed to create these food boxes and help with the food drives. 

“If anyone were to sponsor a Thanksgiving box, it would cost $60 or a Christmas food box can cost $70,” Smith said. “I will always take volunteers to help [feed the students].” 

A lack of community resources is detrimental to creating local food programs, and that’s just one of many continuing trends that small communities face when addressing food insecurity. 

As the pandemic hit, many local businesses, including grocery stores, were forced to shut down, creating greater distances between families and places where fresh food is available. The expansion of food deserts is a historic problem in the area, exacerbated by strained economic conditions. 

“You have several food deserts within Lincoln County where there are many miles between grocery stores,” David Roberts, WVU Extension Agent for Family and Community Development, said. “For the most part, access to food is pretty limited.”

As grocery stores and access to fresh food continue to get harder for many families in Lincoln County, inflation is causing prices to continue to increase for groceries as well.  

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food prices are predicted to increase by 5.8%, with groceries estimated to increase by 5.1%. The inflation means that those who qualify for SNAP benefits may not see their money go as far. 

David Roberts

“You look at the average SNAP benefits for a family of four is about $650 a month, but that’s not extra money,” Roberts said. “That comes out to about $4 a day, and you’re not getting a very nutritious meal for $4 a day.” 

While inflation has been directly linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and its resulting supply chain shortages, wages are also an issue that is driving food insecurity and the importance of SNAP benefits to Lincoln County families, according to Roberts. 

 In the county, the median household income is $46,683, well below the national average of $74,580, and while the cost of living is among the lowest in the nation, inflating prices still make food access an issue for lower-income residents. 

 “Potentially, a family of four could make $17 dollars an hour and still qualify for SNAP benefits because they’re still living below the federal poverty level and there’s not a lot of jobs in Lincoln County that will pay $17 an hour,” Roberts said. 

Roberts, like Smith, believes that the negative social connotations of receiving assistance is another factor that is stopping kids from receiving the aid that they need. 

“We need to take away some of the stigma from the people that need and receive assistance,” Roberts said. 

Ultimately, Roberts says that the situation in Lincoln County will continue unless there are investments in the economy and a cultural shift around education. 

“There’s a lack of value of education which bleeds over into the workforce, its bleeds into jobs coming in, it bleeds into businesses relocating. The generational lack of value of education and the huge export of young adults out of West Virginia continues to keep the cycle going,” Roberts said. 

He also stated that the continuing population decline of Lincoln County and West Virginia is contributing to the slow recovery in the state and county, with Lincoln seeing a population decline from 20,459 people to 19,901 people, or a difference of 558. 

“Our communities seem to stay on a band-aid type of wheel, where we go right to the brakes before we fix it instead of any sort of investment,” Roberts said. “We need investment and opportunities for anything for young adults to do.” 

Ultimately, Lincoln County, like much of West Virginia, faces many challenges that will require cooperation between communities and the officials that represent them. One of the highest priorities is ensuring that the children in the communities are provided access to food. While social benefits such as SNAP are certainly helping, the increasing inflation and lack of economic development within the state indicate that there is much more to do to curb childhood food insecurity. 

Matthew Schaffer is a Huntington native studying journalism as a senior at the W. Page Pitt School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Marshall University. Since joining the program, he worked with WMUL Radio before joining The Parthenon in the news editor position in 2022 and now serves as managing editor. He holds a minor in political science and hopes to cover national politics and foreign affairs.


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content