Living ‘Laudato Si” in Appalachia leads to mix of efforts to feed families

Lori Helfrich and Emily Whitaker of Hazard, Ky., are seen in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Don Clemmer, Cross Roads)

By Don Clemmer Catholic News Service

HAZARD, Ky. — Quilting used to be a big deal across Perry County in eastern Kentucky, but over the years and from one generation to the next, the craft of making quilts has fallen out of practice.

“A lot of that is dying, because people haven’t continued it,” said Lori Helfrich, parish life director at Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Hazard.

The same could be said of farming and gardening in the area. The lack of families who grow at least some of their own foods is one of numerous factors contributing to widespread food insecurity in the area.

Some churches have responded with programs to feed hungry people, but in a largely scattered and uncoordinated way. Recognizing the challenge of hunger, Helfrich and other faith leaders stepped up to create what is in effect a quilt of their own out of the patchwork of services as they develop a plan to cover the chasm of need.

“You have to be creative about it,” Helfrich told Cross Roads, the magazine of the Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky. “How do you encourage people to come together? … You have to build relationships between people who don’t normally interact.”

So last fall, Helfrich and collaborators from across different Christian denominations and secular groups organized the Food and Faith Summit, an effort to get the faith leaders on the same page and start building on existing programs.

“We still have a lot of folks who need food assistance to make ends meet, but there seem to be fewer resources now to help them,” said Jennifer Weeber, Northfork local food coordinator for the Community Farm Alliance, which promotes grassroots agriculture and works with local farmers’ markets. “We have a lot of people going hungry, (who) are not certain where their next meal is coming from, and who are having to make the difficult choice between food and medicine, food and rent, food and utilities.”

Helfrich said the area’s deep poverty is rooted in different factors.

“You have people who have jobs, but they’re not paying enough to be living on. If you’re a single parent, you might be working three jobs, but you still might not be able to cover what you need to,” she said.

Helfrich also cited the widespread role of drug and alcohol addiction. “It’s in nearly every family, because it’s available and it’s a numbing of the other issues that people are facing,” she said. The addictions make it difficult for people to pass a drug test, a requirement of many employers.

Also contributing is the legacy of strip mining in the area, which “strips the land of everything and any topsoil,” Helfrich said. “That adds to food insecurity.”

And most recently, there’s the impact of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Food security was precarious here before the pandemic, and now the problem becomes exacerbated,” Helfrich said. “The most vulnerable populations are hit hardest when something like this unexpected happens. All of this ties together with care for our common home and ‘Laudato Si’.”

After last fall’s summit, Helfrich and her allies established the Food and Faith Coalition. The organization is seeking funding for some of their initiatives, which often draw on the values expressed by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on integral ecology, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”

“We’re trying to link all these things,” said Emily Whitaker, a Presbyterian and one of Helfrich’s collaborators. “I love being involved in all of these projects.”

Whitaker, who moved onto her parents’ nearby property after their death, has overseen a farmers’ market for several years. She also has helped organize dinners that introduce residents to locally grown foods and recipes derived from them.

“We can talk all day about having foods at the farmers’ market, but if people don’t buy them and put them in their mouth, it’s not going to help,” Whitaker said. “You can be one of the people that helps that farmer continue their work and increase that amount of local food that’s available.”

Whitaker, a computer professional turned “farmer wannabe,” is one of numerous people across Perry and Letcher counties in eastern Kentucky who have, with the help of funding from the National Soil Conservation Service, established a high tunnel on her land. Such a tunnel functions as a greenhouse but with plants growing from the ground.

The soil Whitaker is working with covers a onetime coal strip mine and she said there’s nothing organic in it. “It’s rocks. It’s rubble from deep down by where the coal was,” she said.

Whitaker also keeps bees on the property in the hope they can help pollinate anything she might be able to grow.

Helfrich likens the coalition’s work to seeking resurrection in a crucified place.

“There are charitable pieces happening, about feeding people. But what is the justice piece? How is the system changed so that it’s really helping people? … It seems very bleak at times. But there are sparks of hope in it,” she said.

Whitaker has hopes in seeing the cohort of community leaders, all women, who are doing something other than throwing money at a systemic problem.

“God provided this and continues to,” she said. “It’s a natural thing, and isn’t it great that we’ve been able to expand with care of the earth? And those are just very cool messages, and I think they belong in the church.”

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