Children Combat Hunger in West Virginia

Jul 24, 2014

Hannah McCune, age 11
Credit Roxy Todd

Tom Toliver has seen people with children who are hungry, searching for food in dumpsters in the alleys of Charleston. And he isn’t the only one. At the Union Mission where Toliver has been donating fresh vegetables, the president and CEO Rex Whiteman says hunger is on the rise throughout the state, and in Appalachia.

“Yes, we see people that are hungry, people that have not eaten for several days, and will come in our doors saying, ‘can you help me?’. And that is overwhelming, in a society and in a world of abundance, that we have people that are literally starving to death. With the mines closing down, and many of them closing in recent months, that’s just created a new wave of hunger and new people that are in the pipeline, asking for help,” Whiteman said.

And these new people mean that new food is needed all the time. Healthy food, like the type of produce Toliver has been growing in his garden. And this week, staff at the YMCA were inspired by Toliver’s vision and brought 22 kids from summer camp to help him harvest vegetables and deliver them to the Union Mission.

Credit Roxy Todd

Harvesting bush beans
Credit Roxy Todd

Before the YMCA youths arrived to help, one of Toliver’s gardens was about to become overwhelmed by harlequin stink bugs.

“We’re drowning the bugs, and we’re harvesting all the beans and the plants that are ready to be harvested,” said 11-year-old Hannah McCune. She was dressed in a brightly painted hanker-chief, green socks, and pink tennis shoes. She was also wearing garden gloves for what is sometimes a dirty job—finding and killing stink bugs.

It’s not a pretty job, but it’s a necessary one because the volunteer gardeners are committed to using no pesticides on the food they grow. It takes a lot of time to pick out the orange and black bugs by hand.

Stephanie Hysmith is the master gardener supervising the volunteers. She’s had experience with harlequin stink bugs and squash bugs, which can devastate vegetable gardens if ignored. “Last year I started with my zucchini going out and looking under the leaves. And I discovered [squash bug] eggs that were underneath the leaves.”

Hysmith is one of the volunteers most involved with Toliver’s gardens this year. On Tuesday, she taught the children from the YMCA summer camp about the various plants that grow throughout the garden.

One of the children asked her, “what do you do to the plants in the winter?”

“Well in the wintertime the plants go dormant. These are called annuals because they bloom once and then they die. You can save the seed from the fruit, and grow the same plant next year,” Hysmith explained.

Excitement erupted nearby when a blue tailed skink emerged from one of the raised beds and dove back beneath the beans.

Credit Roxy Todd

Credit Roxy Todd

In one morning, they harvest about 25 pounds of chard, collards, cucumbers, green beans and zucchini, which they deliver to the Union Mission the next day.

There, they learned about the somber realities of hunger in West Virginia.

And Tom Toliver was visibly moved from the response he’s received in the last week. His project has gotten a number of calls from people, wanting to support his community gardens.

“My big thought, my big vision, is to rub out hunger, totally, through community gardening. And that’s my strategy—is to start in Charleston, Kanawha County, West Virginia, America—encouraging people to live off the land. And you have seen yourself how easy it’s been to grow food,” Toliver said.

The vegetables that the YMCA kids harvested will be served or given away to families in need who come to Union Mission hungry. Some of these people will not have eaten for days.

The first part of this story about Tom Toliver's West Side Gardens can be found here.