Food pantry faces heavy burden in wake of downturn in coal industry

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WHITESBURG, Ky. -- A middle-aged woman rushes through the door of the Letcher County Food Pantry just before closing time.

“I thought I was too late,” she says, with obvious relief. “I really need my box this month.”

She’s not the only one.

“We have a lot of people who will tell us, ‘There’s no food in my pantry; I have nothing to eat,’” said Vicki Holbrook, co-director of the Letcher County Food Pantry. “If not for what we do here, we’d have a lot more people going hungry in Letcher County.”

The Whitesburg initiative supplies food boxes to more than 500 families in a 6-mile radius each month.

The food pantry is operated out of a small white house on the corner of the grounds of Whitesburg First Baptist Church. The building is provided by the church, which also pays the water and electric bills each month.

Inside the house, volunteers make their way through a maze of boxes of cereal and canned pork and beans in order to fill a box of food for each family.

Holbrook has been volunteering with the food pantry for 3 years, and served as co-director for 2.

The food pantry, which serves an average of more than 1,000 people a month, was established with money from a legal settlement after the Scotia mine disaster of 1976, one of the worst in Kentucky history.

Holbrook says that most of the people who use the food bank typically are the unemployed or the working poor trying to make ends meet in minimum-wage jobs.

And their ranks keep growing throughout central Appalachia where the coal industry is going through a bust cycle. Employment in the coal industry has declined from more than 13,000 five years ago to under 6,000 today.

That’s the fewest number of miners working in the state’s mountain region in more than a century.

Holbrook says the food pantry was averaging about 350 families before the coal industry bottomed out. Now the average is closer to 500 a month.

God’s Pantry Food Bank supplies much of the food distributed by the Letcher County Food Pantry.

God’s Pantry has seen a steady increase in the amount of food distributed in the 50 counties it serves.

“We hear stories almost monthly of mining operations shutting down that result in staggering job losses, and there are not enough new jobs entering the area to keep pace with those that are lost,” said Marian F. Guinn, CEO of God’s Pantry Food Bank.

“We find our partner agencies are feeding more and more people who never thought they would need assistance, and don’t know how long it will be until they can once again support their families as they have in the past.”

The decline of the coal industry has been devastating for the region. The once-thriving downtown business districts in many Appalachian towns now sport mostly empty storefronts.

In 1988, Letcher County had nearly 1,700 residents working in coal-related jobs. By the end of 2015, that number had fallen to about 100.

“There’s depression in a lot of people here,” said Tony Brown, pastor of Whitesburg First Baptist Church. “There’s a heaviness. A lot of people just don’t see any hope for the future.”

Brown, who serves on the local food pantry’s board of directors, said the pervasive unemployment is tough on churches, which regularly receives more requests than they can fulfill for help with utilities, lodging for the homeless, even gasoline for their cars.

The hard reality is that churches have had to put restrictions on the help they give.

“There’s simply not enough money,” he said.

He sympathizes with the young families that are hanging on, still looking for work in the region.

“This is where they grew up,” Brown said. “They want to live here.”

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