Some West Virginia kids go hungry as state touts summer feeding plan


By Amelia Ferrell Knisely for Mountain State Spotlight

This story was produced by Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit news organization covering West Virginia. Find them online at, where you can support them and offer your thoughts on what stories they should cover.

Jennifer Boyle-Hempel eats just once a day so she can save her limited food for her kids. She and her husband run an art studio in Elkins, but they are out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, she hasn’t had enough food to feed everyone in her house, which includes three teenagers.

“I’m a mom. I can handle it,” she said. “But it’s different when you eat once a day because you’re tired. I know I have to save food for tomorrow because my daughter is going to be hungry.”

Her teenage daughter relies on a free food box that’s available at her designated summer feeding site at Elkins High School.

But Boyle-Hempel’s family has only one car, and they can’t always get to the high school, which is a 30-minute drive from their family farm in Beverly. Boyle-Hempel picks up a food box when she can.

“Our daughter is always trying to give us food out of her lunches,” she said.

When Gov. Jim Justice mandated that schools close in March, schools and nonprofits jumped into action to make sure food was available to kids. School lots turned into drive-in feeding sites, bus drivers dropped off meal boxes to kids hidden in hollers, and the National Guard assisted in food handouts. State officials said they served a million meals to students in one month.

Then summer arrived, and the number of food sites shrank. School systems with tight budgets couldn’t sustain as many feeding programs or pay bus drivers to deliver meals to isolated communities. Many summer camps and in-person tutoring programs, which typically help feed kids in summer, never opened because of COVID-19.

Justice has touted an online map of summer feeding sites for students and seniors.

“ … In West Virginia we are truly knocking it out of the park on this,” the governor said in June.

But the plan has holes: Feeding sites are only accessible by families who have a vehicle. There is a two-hour pickup window in the middle of one workday for a week’s worth of food. And the plan relies on the state’s cash-strapped nonprofits to fill in the gaps.

To keep reading, check out the piece on Mountain State Spotlight’s website –

Jessica Smith, foreground, tosses a football with her son, William Smith, outside the family home in Belle on July 9, 2020. Smith said her son “seems like he’s never full” this summer as the family struggles to access food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson