POCA, W.Va. – The West Virginia National Guard (WVNG) is helping establish a regional food distribution center in the Greater Kanawha Valley as the need for food surges across the Mountain State during the COVID-19 pandemic.The new distribution center, at the WVNG Rock Branch facility in Poca, allows multiple organizations to work together in a whole-of-government approach to assist West Virginians facing food insecurity.The Guard joined forces on the project with West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters (WVVOAD), Mountaineer Food Bank, Facing Hunger Food Bank and the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (WVDHSEM).The Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway regularly services food banks, pantries, soup kitchens and other food-security programs in 48 of the state’s 55 counties. They typically serve 100,000 families, including 15,000 to 20,000 people in the Greater Kanawha Valley.Based out of Huntington, the Facing Hunger Food Bank operates as the primary food receiving, packaging, and distribution agency for 248 partner agencies servicing 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. Each day, Facing Hunger handles more than 20,000 pounds of non-perishable and perishable products – more than 11 million pounds annually.Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a dramatic increase in demand for food. To keep up with the increased need, both organizations have tripled how much food they buy, resulting in the need for more storage and distribution capabilities.“Our organizations have seen a 40% or greater increase [for food] across the state since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Chad Morrison, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank. “Working with the WVNG, WVVOAD, WVDHSEM, and Facing Hunger to establish a centralized distribution center in Kanawha County takes pressure off our collective headquarters facilities for storage and manpower needs, and allows us to better serve all our partner organizations throughout our great state and region.”The idea of a centralized food distribution facility in the Greater Kanawha Valley has been considered since well before the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic accelerated the process.Jenny Gannaway, executive director of WVVOAD, said she got a call on a Saturday night from Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the WVNG, asking if the Guard could help set up another centralized food bank supporting Facing Hunger and Mountaineer food banks. She called the Benedum Foundation, which funds a lot of food operations in West Virginia.Cynthia Kirkhart, executive director at Facing Hunger, said the new location “will improve our support of emergency hunger relief and create a streamlined and efficient space in which we will always be ready to meet the needs of those we collectively serve in WV.”The distribution center will provide a full range of food supplies to local agencies, including dry goods and refrigerated and frozen foods such as eggs, meats, frozen vegetables and frozen breakfast items. To store the cold-storage and frozen foods, the WVNG secured 13 refrigerated tractor-trailers. Permanent cold-storage units will eventually replace the tractor-trailer units.Once fully operational, the Rock Branch center will support about eight new jobs and add 1 million pounds of food stocks to the Greater Kanawha Valley each year.The WVDHSEM, which manages the Rock Branch warehouse, is providing forklifts and pallet jacks and helping to design and create the working spaces at the new center.“The logistical assistance and location space the WVNG and WVDHSEM has been able to provide to us to help us meet our mission of feeding West Virginia has just been incredible,” said Gabri Bonazzo, with the Mountaineer Food Bank.“More than 267,000 West Virginians, including 1 in 5 children, face food insecurity. In the Greater Kanawha Valley alone, we have seen an increase in demand of some 4,000 individuals above our regular distribution, and Facing Hunger is already servicing over 1,700 additional senior citizens since the onset of the pandemic. And that need continues to grow.“It takes a whole network of people to feed our vulnerable populations, including the very young and the elderly,” she added. “Without this location and the Guard’s assistance, we simply could not do what we are doing.”Long-term funding will depend on private sector nonprofit efforts, grants through the Feeding America program and government funding via the state, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the CARES Act passed by Congress to support COVID-19 response efforts.For more National Guard news: http://www.nationalguard.mil/National Guard Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheNationalGuard/National Guard Twitter: https://twitter.com/usnationalguardHow the National Guard is helping: https://www.nationalguard.mil/coronavirus/Photos of the National Guard response: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thenationalguard/albums/72157713483827538Latest from the CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/U.S. response: https://www.coronavirus.gov/White House-CDC response: https://www.coronavirus.gov/