In my first entry, “My Appalachia,” I introduced you to my hometown as it relates to ethical eating. I touched on fast food, diner-style establishments that have come and gone over the years, a mission-themed coffee shop that funds a food pantry for families in need, and family gardening. I told some personal stories and hope you enjoyed them. I plan to tell more in future entries. I also noted that food access and affordability are real issues in Appalachia. Not everyone has access to a family garden.
This entry is a follow-up on issues of food insecurity and meaningful access to healthier food options. Places all over the country face these problems as well. We cannot talk about food insecurity and access in any meaningful way without addressing the elephant in the room—poverty. In looking nationally at the geography of poverty, “people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than being spread evenly across the Nation.” The South generally contains the highest concentrations of poverty, “with the most severe poverty . . . found in historically poor areas of the Southeast, including the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, as well as on Native American lands.” In looking at national poverty demographics, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics had the highest incidence of poverty in 2017.
According to the USDA Economic Research Service, in 2017, the overwhelming majority of Appalachian counties’ percent of total population in poverty ranged from 27‒42%. Clay and Harlan Counties, both of which share borders with my home of Leslie County, had the highest poverty rates in KY. Leslie County was the 15th poorest KY county in 2017. Knott County, which I am going to mention in more depth below, was the 7th poorest KY county in 2017. With poverty ranges in the four counties I mentioned ranging from 31‒41.7%, we are looking at some of the poorest counties in the United States.
On a personal level, it makes me feel sad to share those statistics, statistics that many Appalachian people are sick of trying to explain to people. I feel like we are all so conditioned to try to appear as wealthy as possible, that the stigma of poverty is something that makes people simultaneously judgmental and scared, even those living in poverty-stricken areas. For more thorough reading on poverty, I urge you to check out Joshua Wilkey’s blog and poverty reading list. His assessment is succinct that “[w]e must realize that there exists no single narrative about Appalachian poverty. Not all poor people are the same.” Also, not all people in Appalachia are poor. However, the region’s poverty levels, both historically and currently, are high enough that we cannot ignore them.
I told you in my first entry that dignity is important and I’m coming back to it here, because it is a recurring, essential element in how to better understand Appalachia, and the issue of food access generally. Reducing people to the challenges they face overshadows the depth of the individual stories that make Appalachia what it is. I just learned that Dr. Brent Hutchinson, the Executive Director of Hindman Settlement School, has been awarded an Obama Foundation Fellowship to expand the Hindman Settlement School’s local food programs. He was selected from a global pool of applicants to join a Fellows class “that brings together 20 leaders representing 10 countries and five continents who are creating transformational change on many of the world’s most pressing problems.”
Hindman Settlement School is one of the oldest institutions in Eastern Kentucky. It was established in 1902 by May Stone and Katherine Pettit as the first rural social settlement school in America. These women were not from Appalachia and could be characterized within the larger reforms of the Progressive Era, which was happening throughout the US during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Despite obvious challenges women faced with respect to equality, they were instrumental in efforts to advance educational, social, and health programs during this time. A connection to my hometown exists in the example of Mary Breckinridge, an outsider who brought skilled midwifery to Hyden, KY in 1925. She eventually started the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS). My Dad and his sisters were delivered by FNS midwives. In 1979, I was delivered by a midwife at the Mary Breckinridge Hospital. Every year, my hometown celebrates the Mary Breckinridge Festival. Before Mary Breckinridge and the FNS, my area had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. As a History major at EKU in the late 1990s, I remember learning about Jane Addams and Hull-House, which she co-founded with Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago (1889), and how women participated in Progressive Era reform. I remember thinking, “Aha, my hometown fits into that larger reform through Mary Breckinridge’s FNS and the nearby settlement schools.” It gives me a chuckle that, although Appalachia is often presented as being out-of-touch, it sure as heck was intertwined with the women’s reform movements of the Progressive Era. My birth story is tied directly to it. The Settlement School Movement also had an impact on Appalachia and continues to do so. My Aunt, Joyce Fortney Hamberg, taught 5th and 6th grade at Pine Mountain Settlement School. In 1988, she received her Doctorate in School Administration at Indiana University and had a distinguished career of 47 years. In 2017, she retired from Thomas More College. I know that there are so many other connections out there, more than I can capture in a single blog entry. Importantly, after these programs came into the mountains, Appalachian people became active participants and not just the subjects of such programs.
Many of the women who came to Appalachia to start the Settlement Schools and other similar programs were college-educated and from middle and upper class families. Back then, women who earned degrees were generally affluent women who were expected to go back to their families to be educated and genteel fixtures within a more private, domestic sphere. But many women, like those who came to Appalachia, decided not to follow those expectations. They wanted to find other ways to use their degrees. Although many of these women espoused domestic values through their work, which was how their work was expected to be framed in order to be acceptable by society, they went into places unknown to them to start new endeavors. Many wanted to teach and learn. They saw opportunities for leadership. Despite whatever criticisms one can think of surrounding what the reforms did or did not accomplish, and such criticism is important to learn about, the courage and ambition of these women is notable. I think many Appalachian people recognized their courage and the toughness that it took to navigate Appalachian terrain. I also think that despite the narratives about Appalachians being backward, many were receptive to the exchange of ideas and services that these programs offered. If mountain people were as unwilling as the stereotypes made them out to be, all of these projects would have been failures, and places like Hindman Settlement School, Pine Mountain Settlement School, Alice Lloyd College, the FNS, and others wouldn’t persist in some form today. My hometown certainly wouldn’t have created and perpetuated a festival in Mary Breckinridge’s honor if they had understood her to be some outsider up to no good. There is a statute in her honor in downtown Hyden. My hometown’s historical hero is a woman and that is important.
Although the Hindman Settlement School was started by outsiders, its current Executive Director was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky. The Obama Foundation Fellowship will enable Hindman Settlement School to expand its 6-year-old Foodways programs that help local families grow and preserve their food. The Grow Appalachia program is a partnership with Berea College that seeks to address food insecurity “by restoring the historic relationship between people and land.” Hindman Settlement School is just one of Grow Appalachia’s many partners (more on that below). Knott County participants in the Grow Appalachia program can use The Cannery, a fully equipped, licensed kitchen equipped for small batch artisanal food production, for free. Ordinarily, the base rate for use of The Cannery is $25 per hour. The Cannery is part of how Hindman Settlement School works with local farmers to expand their businesses and create products from leftover produce. Other related food initiatives include The Knott County Farmers Market; a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program providing residents weekly vegetables for about $20/week, including a limited number of free subscriptions for low income families; and other programs. Notably, The Knott County Farmers Market, founded in 2013, accepts SNAP, EBT, WIC, and launched Diabetes Dollars, “a voucher program that provides fresh produce to people with chronic health problems.” In 2018, “the market served 122% more customers, sold 60% more produce, and housed 150% more vendors than in 2017.” Additionally, some of the food grown at the Pine Mountain Settlement School farm is sold at the Harlan County Farmer’s Market, “where recipients of SNAP are able to ‘double’ their purchasing power to gain extra access to fresh, healthy food.”
Grow Appalachia, introduced above, is a program that partners with communities throughout Appalachia to address food insecurity and malnutrition. The program was created in 2009 by funding from John Paul Dejoria, co-founder and owner of John Paul Mitchell Systems (JPMS) and Patron Tequila. John Paul collaborated with Berea College (which happens to be Mom’s alma mater) to develop the program. The program does not apply a single approach, but instead “meets families where they live and addresses their specific needs.” This may include soil testing and providing the supplies needed to grow an organic garden. Grow Appalachia includes at least 21 partners, including Hindman Settlement School, Pine Mountain Settlement School, and Red Bird Mission. Partner sites must be committed to organic gardening, education, and resources. Grow Appalachia also has its own blog, so check it out! While the program addresses food insecurity, it is my understanding that there is no income limit to participate in the Growing Appalachia program. That means anyone may seek to participate where the program is available and resources allow. I think that this is a huge positive in the implementation of this program, because it takes away the unfortunate stigma of poverty from the process and gives people another choice. This goes back to the issue of dignity that I keep bringing up. Also, people who may not meet strict income guidelines still face challenges, such as balancing work and home life in a healthy way and making ends meet in a manner that makes sense economically.
One thing that strikes me about the genesis of Grow Appalachia, is that according to its website, it all started with “Tommy Callahan, a friend of John Paul’s and Senior Vice President of Training and Development of JPMS, [who] told John Paul about his experience growing up in Harlan County, Kentucky.” Many Appalachian people who move away take a good bit of Appalachia with them. I believe that Appalachian people can (and often do) teach those with whom they interact with just as much as they can learn from others. Many people in Appalachia, like Hutchinson, already know that “when people have access to healthy food, their health outcomes improve dramatically.” People there aren’t oblivious to the region’s problems. Sometimes, what is needed is for doors to open “and (for Appalachians to be enabled to) make connections with people to appreciate Eastern Kentucky in a way they don’t right now.” This fellowship is a positive step forward in this endeavor.
I believe that it is crucial to bring attention to problems that persist in a particular region or community; however, it is also important to highlight instances where that community is moving forward. It would be wonderful to see programs that make organic produce more readily available expand throughout Appalachia. Individuals and entities doing positive things need our continued encouragement.
Appalachian people have been “rediscovered” over and over again in the narrative of modern America. I just told you about how hair products, tequila, a global Fellowship, poverty, organic gardening, Progressive Era reform, settlement schools, and midwifery are all intertwined in Appalachia, and that barely touches on what the region is all about. There is so much more for all of us to learn. Rather than rediscovering Appalachia, maybe we should try harder to understand the Appalachia that has always been there, and what has both hindered and helped it along the way.