“Watch to the right,” Bobby Simpson said from the passenger seat as we passed over a small river and approached a fork in the narrow road. He pointed a large finger, knobby with age, out the window. “This big field out here, I worked in that thing day after day after day. Used to raise corn, used to raise wheat. Look how big it is, honey. We’d tend that every year.”
The field was large but clearly hadn’t been used to grow corn or wheat for some time. The houses around it, too, stood in varying states of disrepair. They marked the edge of a town called Wallins Creek, which has about four hundred residents and is situated in the mountains of Harlan County, Kentucky. Simpson, who’s eighty-five, grew up here, and, as we drove through town, he reminisced about times when the county was flush with coal-mining jobs, the schools were full, and the neighborhoods were crowded.
Simpson moved across the county to another small town, Cranks Creek, soon after getting married, in 1956. Twenty years later, he retired from his job at a farm-supply store, and he and his wife, Becky, created the Cranks Creek Survival Center, which helps people who live in the most isolated parts of Harlan County. At first, the Simpsons limited their efforts to rebuilding houses and dredging creeks that had been destroyed by the spring flood of 1977. Then coal boomed, went bust, boomed again, and busted again; workers got sick from black lung; the opioid crisis swept through. The center adapted to address each of these changes. Needs were never uniform, and nothing was official. Like many other small rural organizations, Cranks Creek Survival Center depended entirely on its founders and the relationships they built. The Simpsons were, essentially, good neighbors for the whole county. Becky died in 2013, but Bobby has kept it up. “I know people all over the place,” he told me. “I’ve been to just about every house in Harlan County. I’ve waited on families all time of day, all time of night, seven days a week.”
Simpson knows the county so well that he can tell you exactly how to get from almost any neighborhood to any other without a map, and how long it’ll take. He is also blind, having lost his eyesight in his twenties to retinal detachment. Sitting next to me in the car, he relied on a photographic memory to guide us with uncanny precision down the crooked roads.
“All right, we turn left right out here,” he said. “It says Terry’s Fork. Turn left.” I turned left. “See a sign where it says Grammer Lane?” I saw it. “Take a left and go right down that hill.” Halfway down the hill, Simpson told me to stop. “You see that blue two-story house over to the right?” he asked. I did. “O.K., that’s where I was raised at. That’s my old home place right there.”
Outside a blue house, which was built on the property after Simpson’s childhood home burned down, stood Mike Vanwinkle, leaning against his truck. Simpson had rented the house to Mike and his wife, Jessica, after the roof of their house collapsed, six months ago. The Vanwinkles have four children together, and Mike, who owns a garage in Baxter, where he grew up, has had very little work since the pandemic began. Jessica has a job in the business office of a nearby hospital, but her hours had been cut, and the family’s income nearly disappeared. They applied for food stamps, and, for the first time, worried about feeding their family. Even with the Emergency Allotment extension on SNAP benefits, which granted all eligible families the maximum benefit—and even with Jessica working two to four days a week at the hospital—they were running out of food halfway through the month. “See, we got all these kids,” Mike said. “It’s hard to feed them. And two of them’s boys—you can imagine—and then they’re growing. I mean, you could fill the refrigerator up and one day it’s gone.” The Vanwinkles were able to squeak by until a late-summer storm destroyed their house. They looked for an affordable place but couldn’t find anything. Homeless, they moved in with Jessica’s mother.
The median household income in Harlan County was below the national poverty line before the pandemic; it has since dipped even lower. The nonprofit Feeding America estimates that the number of people in the county without access to sufficient healthy food increased by seventeen per cent last year, to nearly a third of its residents, making it one of the most food-insecure places in the United States. The numbers are worse in places like Wallins Creek, where the nearest major grocery store is more than ten miles away. After spending two futile weeks looking for a place to live, Mike turned to the only person he knew who might be able to help: Bobby Simpson.
Hundreds of people in and around Harlan County—maybe thousands, Simpson said—have done the same thing. “The phone has been ringing off the hook since the beginning of the pandemic,” Ada Vaughn, who takes care of Simpson and helps run the survival center, told me. “Sometimes, when we have food giveaways, there’ll be a line stretching all the way up Virginia Mountain,” she said, referring to a ridge that straddles the Kentucky-Virginia border.
This has nearly as much to do with Simpson as with the widespread need in the area. There are a lot of people who don’t know what government programs they’re eligible for, or how to apply for them, or who don’t feel comfortable doing so. And many people aren’t sufficiently served by those programs. SNAP benefits are relatively easy to access, but even the maximum amount is rarely enough to feed a family for a month. Unemployment benefits, meanwhile, are often difficult to apply for—and, in Kentucky, claims have been backed up for months. Even regional nonprofits often require applications that can make some people hesitant to reach out. But Simpson is decidedly anti-bureaucratic. When you go to the center for help, you deal only with him and Vaughn. They don’t ask questions and don’t make you fill out paperwork. Sometimes, people take advantage of this—the same car will pull through a food giveaway multiple times, or a family will ask for something and then resell it—and Simpson is aware of this. But it’s a price he is willing to pay for the trust that comes with discretion.
In this way, the survival center can provide a layered solution to the layered issue of food access. Simpson and a rotating group of volunteers who come from around the country give out food, furniture, blankets, and washing machines; they build houses and repair porches. When a family is worried about going hungry, it is, as a general rule, not only about having enough SNAP benefits to buy food for a month. It’s also about car maintenance and access to shelter and consistent work. Rather than piecing together adequate assistance from a variety of programs, filling out paperwork and waiting for help, you can just go to Simpson.
When the Vanwinkles came to him, without a home and struggling to afford enough food for their kids, Simpson rented them his three-bedroom home for five hundred dollars a month, well below the market rate. Soon afterward, in late September, Mike was walking up the steps to the porch of his new house when he saw a box. It was filled with vegetables, fruit, and meat, and had been left by Simpson. “It was a bad time for us. We was broke,” Mike told me. He called his wife, who came home and fried the canned ham that Simpson had provided. “Everything we ate that day was from the food box,” Mike said. “I mean, it’s just amazing.” From then on, each month, right around the time their money and SNAP benefits ran out, the Vanwinkles would find a box on their porch. “They saved us,” Jessica said.
But the pandemic was causing problems for the survival center, too. Normally, more than twenty groups of volunteers will come through in the course of a year. But, in 2020, only one group of volunteers was able to visit. Simpson has also built relationships with local churches and out-of-state organizations that give money to fund his efforts, but those organizations were facing shortages of their own.
After Simpson guided me back to Cranks Creek from the Vanwinkles’ house (“Go right around the curve, and then go back to the right. . . . ”) and had me pull into the survival center’s driveway next to an old truck, he told me that he had run out of food for the third time since the beginning of the pandemic. “I had about five or six tons sitting in that big room over there,” he said, gesturing to a storage building. “Kept it there for Christmas. They took the last bag of food that we had. And we’ve had several people call since Christmas needing food. Well, honey, we don’t have it.” Vaughn told me that they had to turn away people asking for help nearly every day.
On one of the last days of January, Cedaridge Ministries, in Williamsburg, Kentucky, a religious charity that often donates food to the survival center, called Simpson. The group had just received a delivery of food from donors, two tractor-trailer loads. Was Simpson interested in picking some up? “Two tractor-trailer loads? Whee-ooh,” Simpson said, smiling. The woman asked how much he was able to take. “As many as you can fit in a twenty-six-footer,” he said, referring to the box truck he would rent to transport the food.
For the rest of the day, and the next, Simpson and Vaughn spread the news of the food delivery by talking to people around Harlan County. “I might be calling again sometime,” one woman, who was recently widowed, with two children at home, said when she heard. “Well, that’s real good,” said an eighty-three-year-old woman who lived alone in a town called Cawood. At her age, it took a lot of effort to go out to the grocery store, she said, and she’d been hesitant about leaving the house because of the virus. Cases spiked in the county heading into the winter.
But, even as he told people about the food giveaway, Simpson was wondering how he could afford to bring it in. He was broke, and renting a twenty-six-foot truck usually costs about two hundred dollars; diesel for a nearly two-hundred-mile round trip would run about a hundred and sixty dollars. That weekend, he called churches, past benefactors, and friends to try to muster up the funds. Nobody else had any extra money, either. So, on February 4th, after getting his seven-hundred-and-eighty-three-dollar Social Security check, and paying his bills, he used what was left to rent a truck and pay for diesel. A friend drove it to Williamsburg, with Simpson in the passenger seat. They advertised the food on a local radio station, and people they knew posted information about it on their Facebook pages. Immediately, they started receiving calls. “About everybody right now is out of food,” Simpson told me. The next morning, when Simpson and Vaughn opened the center for the giveaway, dozens of cars lined the road, waiting.