SWAP staff, partners in Appalachia adapt to COVID-19

MCC’s SWAP staff in Kentucky and West Virginia are helping local partners distribute food to Appalachian people in need, but with new practices that address the safety concerns about the coronavirus.

In September 2019, Charlene Barr, front, and Sarah Geiser, MCC Great Lakes staff members, volunteered with their colleagues to help sort canned goods at Christs Hands food pantry in Harlan, Kentucky. MCCs Sharing With Appalachian People staff continue to support Christs Hands, a long-time MCC partner, as the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way food is distributed to people who need it most. MCC photo/Jennifer Steiner

Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) staff continue supporting local partners as they distribute food to people in Kentucky and West Virginia, but the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way they get food to the people who need it most.

Best known for coordinating volunteer groups to repair homes, SWAP is a program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) whose roots in Appalachia extend back to 1964. From SWAP’s stock of construction supplies, leaders are donating face masks and gloves to local first responders.

Leaders of the program also partner with local organizations in food programs. In an area where people’s economic wellbeing is already uncertain, COVID-19 is likely to make it worse.

“In our county, there are already a lot of people without jobs who rely on food pantries,” says Peg Martin, SWAP location coordinator in Kimball, W. Va. “It (COVID-19) makes life in general that much harder where it is already difficult.”

Martin and her husband, Lee Martin, regularly join the efforts of Houston United Methodist Church in Kimball and Northfork (W. Va.) United Methodist Church to distribute food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture each month.

To get the food to the churches, the food is relayed over a 140-mile journey in West Virginia. Typically, a food bank in Huntington brings the food as far as Welch, where Lee helps haul the food back to Northfork UMC. Once the food is sorted and boxed, Peg helps to register recipients while Lee carries food boxes to their vehicles.

With up to 160 households receiving portions of the 3 to 6 tons of food each month, the churches are adjusting distribution methods to continue to get the food to folks safely in light of COVID-19 restrictions. During this past month, the food was divided into boxes on the church pews and individuals scheduled appointments, 15 minutes apart, to come pick up their boxes rather than filing through a pick-up line. It took several days, rather than the typical three-hour time period.

“It was a challenge to balance the concerns about spreading the virus with the very real need for food by many,” says Peg Martin, who worked with leaders to plan the new distribution process.

In Harlan, Kentucky, SWAP location coordinators Pete and Stephanie Broersma are facing similar challenges as they support Christ’s Hands, a long-time partner organization providing food, shelter and other assistance.

“The closure of nonessential workplaces is heavily hitting our area,” says Stephanie Broersma. “It remains to be seen exactly what the future holds, but we expect the need will increase.”

Christ’s Hands not only serves as a food pantry for the local Harlan community, but it’s also a distribution hub for semitrucks of food from Midwest Food Bank for other pantries in the tri-county area. Several of those pantries are currently not able to operate as staff follow local, state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe operations.

In addition to the monthly distribution of 200 food boxes and emergency food provisions, Christ’s Hands serves a hot evening meal in their soup kitchen Monday through Friday each week for more than 100 area residents. The meals sometimes include canned meat from MCC.

About half of the meals are delivered by volunteers to homebound people in the community, while the other recipients usually eat together in the dining room. With the social gathering restrictions, Christ’s Hands is now packing the dine-in meals into takeout boxes for folks to pick up from the back porch of the building, one at a time per state guidelines.

Broersma regularly spends Tuesdays at the soup kitchen helping to prepare the evening meal. Christ’s Hands is working to reduce the number of people working together at one time in all aspects of their ministry, including staggering the times volunteers and staff come into the building.

Despite new obstacles in reaching folks who need assistance, especially during this time of crisis, SWAP staff continue to see hope in their communities.

“We’re in the midst of the storm,” Broersma says. “It’s hard to know what the future holds, but Appalachia is very resilient. We’re taking it one day at a time.”

“Spring is coming,” reflects Peg Martin. “The trees are budding, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, reminding us of new life in this season of Lent. We have witnessed God working and providing in the past, and trust that he will continue to do so.”

For more information about SWAP: swap.mcc.org

Jennifer Steiner is communications coordinator for MCC Great Lakes



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