Meet the Be Healthy Team: Whitney King
Throughout 2023, Be Healthy’s fifth and final year of this five-year cooperative agreement with the Center for Disease Control’s HOP (High Obesity Program), we will be releasing quarterly conversations with core team members, where they will share insight into the projects we have the privilege of supporting, reflect on their findings, and make strides to continue increasing access to healthy foods and physical activity in West Virginia.
This is the second installment of our “Meet the Team” series, featuring Whitney King, Nutrition Coordinator at the Mountaineer Food Bank.
For over a year now, Whitney King has served as the Nutrition Coordinator at Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway, WV. Check out our Q&A with Whitney below to learn more about her goals for the food bank and some of the exciting initiatives coming up!
Q: For those who aren’t familiar with Mountaineer Food Bank, tell us a little about the organization.
A: Mountaineer Food Bank believes in a West Virginia where no one goes to bed hungry today… or tomorrow. We are led by our mission to feed West Virginia’s hungry and empower communities to end hunger.
Q: How did you initially get involved with Mountaineer Food Bank?
A: The truth is, my heart wasn’t in the career path that I initially chose. I wanted to really make a difference in my community. When I finally quit running from my call to serve my community, I called a friend who is the Community Engagement Specialist at Mountaineer Food Bank to see if she knew of anything open and I knew immediately that this Nutrition Coordinator position was the perfect fit.
Q: What is a typical “day-in-the-life” for you at the food bank?
A: I was hired to implement a nutrition ranking system with Mountaineer Food Bank and to help them design an organizational nutrition policy that is neighbor centered. That role is now transitioning to working with our member agencies to do the same. In the next 5 years working with Be Healthy, I will be working with program coordinators to assist agencies in implementing policies and sourcing to increase access to healthy food across the state. This was an entirely new position within the organization, so we are still defining what it will look like. It’s never the same day twice. I work with the IS-SC (Information Systems and Supply Chain) department, and we are working to build systems and processes that will expand access to healthy food.
Q: How many families and organizations does Mountaineer Food Bank support?
A: Each day we distribute anywhere from 30,000-40,000 pounds of food to a different area across West Virginia. On an annual basis, we distribute over 17 million meals to families struggling with food insecurity, which is nearly 21 million pounds of food. Nearly 111,182 households are served annually by Mountaineer Food Bank and we also stock the shelves of nearly 500 partner food pantries
Q: Those are impressive numbers! What are some of the biggest challenges you and the rest of the team have encountered over time?
A: It’s no secret that the food economy isn’t optimal right now. As a matter of fact, the cost of food is higher than ever. Folks are struggling to feed their families. This also impacts the food bank in terms of procuring healthy food. It’s much less expensive to purchase unhealthy, processed foods than it is to purchase healthy items. Our focus right now is to help WV’s food economy by purchasing local, affordable food. We are committed to finding real, sustainable solutions to the affordability issue because we understand that it is necessary to get healthy food onto the tables of our neighbors.
Q: What are some of your biggest victories so far?
A: I am proud to say that we were able to implement the Healthy Eating Research (HER) Guidelines and a new formal nutrition policy. As I’ve said, by making necessary changes to the way the food bank procures food, it can have an enormous impact on what food is accessible to our member agencies and ultimately our neighbors. I would also say that the partnerships that we’ve built across the state have been a huge victory. Mountaineer Food Bank can’t achieve our mission without the help of those partners. Together, we can empower our communities to make healthier choices.
Q: Tell us a little about the new system at the food bank that categorizes food based on the nutritional value.
A: The research was becoming more and more clear. In order to end hunger, we have to address not only the immediate issue (feeding hungry people), but also the root causes of hunger. Nutrition is one of those elements. We knew we had to increase access to healthy food to achieve our mission. We implemented the HER Guidelines that were developed based on common items found in food banks and pantries that rank food on a stoplight system. This allows Mountaineer Food Bank to see what types of inventory we’ve been getting, which foods we should be sourcing and gives us a roadmap to distributing healthier food. The next step is to help our member agencies do the same which will then allow neighbors to make informed decisions on which foods to choose, or what they’re receiving from their food pantries. We have received positive feedback internally on this system and the nutrition policy which focuses on the food we purchase. Next, when we start to provide technical assistance to agencies implementing their own version of these systems and processes, I am confident that they will be excited to empower their community members to make healthier choices.
Q: Has your perspective or outlook changed at all since working at the food bank?
A: Before working at Mountaineer Food Bank, I knew that the work they do was helping our communities. However, I had no idea just how every choice we make, and everything we do makes an impact fundamentally on the health of our fellow West Virginians. I have never been more proud to be part of a team. Each and every member of our team from our internal staff to our member agencies and partners care deeply about our fellow West Virginians. I have learned how essential it is to educate, and empower our communities and to reduce the stigma around food insecurity in order to achieve our mission. It’s not as simple as “feeding people.” It’s about empowering people. It’s about building partnerships. It’s about making friends and giving a smile to everyone we encounter. It’s about living our mission, not just reciting it.
Q: If readers wish to support your work, how can they do so?
A: There are many ways to support the work we’re doing. They can visit our website www.mountaineerfoodbank.org and donate or volunteer at the food bank or one of their local food pantries. They can also support the nutrition work by learning about the root causes of hunger and starting conversations with their friends, neighbors, or colleagues about the impact nutrition or malnutrition has on the cycle of poverty and hunger. It’s incredibly important to increase awareness of how nutrition affects our everyday lives.