West Virginia Department of Commerce

West Virginia state park restaurants making meals for kids affected by COVID-19 school closures

One of society’s most significant challenges is children going to bed hungry each night and waking up the next morning not knowing where they’ll get their next meal. In West Virginia, more than 183,000 kids live in a household at or below the federal poverty level, about 1 in 5 kids experience food insecurity and 67 percent of school-aged kids rely on free or reduced-priced meals. Under normal circumstances, these kids only have adequate access to food when they go to class. So, what happens when a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down the schools?

Springing into action

The spread of the coronavirus halted nearly all travel in West Virginia at a time when state parks start opening cabins and campgrounds to welcome an influx of tourists on quests to see wildflowers and waterfalls spring to life after the winter thaw. When park facilities closed to prevent community spread of the virus, concerns were raised because local state parks are more than outdoor attractions. Many are also the largest employer in their community.

“When the pandemic happened, we became really concerned about how we would be able to keep our staff employed,” said Paul Redford, a district administrator for the West Virginia Parks system. “That’s when we got together with the Tourism Office and the folks over at the Department of Education and came up with a way to provide hours for our employees by helping make meals for kids.”

Staff at Cacapon, Canaan Valley, Chief Logan, Pipestem and Twin Falls came up with a plan of action to turn closed dining rooms into meal prep stations and started coordinating with local education departments and nutritionists to prepare more than 20,000 breakfasts and lunches that would be distributed to kids in the community each week through the end of the school year.

“Local communities are so generous in their support for our parks throughout the year, so we wanted to take this time to give back and help feed kids who may not have enough to eat,” said West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel. “This program is making a difference for kids who rely on school meals.”

“From Audra to Watters Smith, West Virginia’s state parks are community cornerstones with some of the most kind-hearted employees you’ll ever meet. They jumped at the opportunity to help kids in their community,” Redford said.

Helping in times of need

Under the guidance of Gov. Jim Justice, Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Stephen McDaniel, the state parks system has become an integral part of state operations during natural disasters and crises over the past four years. When Hurricane Harvey displaced thousands of people living on the Atlantic coast in 2017, state park cabins, lodges and campgrounds were steeply discounted for people seeking shelter during the historic storm.

“We’ve always done what we can to help and it’s an honor to have our state’s leadership look to us in times of need like this,” Redford said. “We are proud to be part of this effort and to see interagency cooperation to help West Virginians who really need some help right now.”

In addition to playing a bigger role in crisis response, West Virginia state park staff are taking this time to improve operations and preparing for changes when the economy comes back online and parks can reopen facilities.

“People know that their state park will always be there for them, so we expect to see a lot of traffic once things start opening up again,” Redford said. “That’s why we’re training our employees to ramp up cleaning protocols and go above and beyond when it comes to making sure our parks are safe and continue to be known for hospitality and service.”

Apart But Not Alone 

West Virginians have been resilient through the COVID-19 pandemic. If you know a business, organization or individual finding creative ways to give back to their community, we want to hear about it. Share their story with us at commerce.wv.gov/wv-stories/wv-apart-not-alone. 

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