CHARLESTON, W.Va. — You have to stay in poverty to survive poverty.
Too often, several West Virginians say that continues to be the reality they face as they work to support their families at a time of new challenges that have come during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s an endless, vicious cycle,” said Stormy Johnson, a single mom to three who works as a student support specialist for the school system in Preston County.
“Until those people that don’t see what we know is the truth take time to open their eyes and see it, we’re never going to get a change.”
Mary Reinbold from Benwood, a single mother to three kids, works as a bank document processor.
“You get stuck at the bottom,” Reinbold said of her financial struggles.
Both Johnson and Reinbold were among the four panelists who told their stories during Friday’s closing session of the 2020 Food For All Summit, a week-long virtual event focused on “bold ideas” to address hunger and food insecurity in West Virginia with alternatives to the current system.
“I think that we just need to really start telling these stories because, poverty and financial struggle, it forces a lot of us to keep a lot of secrets,” said Amy Jo Hutchinson, organizer for Our Future West Virginia, the session moderator.
“One secret is, I’d almost lay money on the fact, that there are some of us here right now who probably don’t have as much food at home as they really could use or need, but society tells us that we need to hold that as a secret and we really shouldn’t say stuff like that out loud.”
The challenges of bureaucracy were a common theme.
Reinbold said the top policy priority needed to be changes to simplify qualifications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and to make income guidelines “more realistic” with adjustments to better transition people off SNAP.
Johnson, who currently earns too much money to qualify for SNAP, echoed that.
“We shouldn’t have to worry about, hey, do I take a raise and lose all those benefits or do I tell my employer, well, you know, I can’t take that raise because I’m going to lose the ability to feed my family,” she said.
“We’re faced with a lot of choices that shouldn’t have to be choices if our system wasn’t so broken.”
Other panelists included Amber Roy, a married mother of two from St. Albans who works as a direct care work with mentally ill and developmentally-delayed West Virginians, and Jasmine Reynolds, a single mother with two kids who works as the center director of the King’s Daughter Child Care Center in Wheeling.
During the discussion, Hutchinson issued challenges designed to inspire “radical change” to those who were part of the session.
– Challenge No. 1: Try to apply for SNAP benefits to experience the difficulties and extensive information needed firsthand.
– Challenge No. 2: Volunteer to go with someone to the state Department of Health and Human Resources seeking services.
– Challenge No. 3: Investigate the poverty guidelines. For a family of three, the Federal Poverty Level is $21,720
Calls went out during Friday’s session to lawmakers to listen to those dealing daily with hunger and food insecurity.
Hutchinson said it was past time to start telling the truth about what that struggle looked like.
“Once we push through our fear and the shame of being stuck inside that struggle and once we stop talking about how to fix these problems for those experiencing them and start talking to impacted folks about how to fix these problems with them, then that’s how we’re going to see the change,” Hutchinson said.
“It’s just all intersectional and, if you know someone who’s struggling with food insecurity, that very same person is struggling on a lot of other levels too.”
In Johnson’s view, change had to start with revisions to individual views of people with low incomes.
She asked: “Like, what does poor look like? Why are we being so stereotypical? Why are we not listening instead of judging? We’re all one decision away from some of the situations these people are in.”