Seventeen years ago, a small group of workers involved with the Kanawha Valley Labor Council, AFL-CIO, were concerned over how many of their friends were losing their jobs and having a hard time feeding their families. It was a problem that families throughout West Virginia were facing with the unemployment rate reaching nearly twenty percent. About thirty-eight percent of families fall below the federal poverty guidelines. West Virginia’s families were hungry, and they needed help immediately.
In 1983, and with the guidance of Elaine Harris, Donald Withrow, Ray Pauley and Gary Jarvis, the United Food Operation (UFO) was born. It was born as an effort to feed families in seven or eight counties. Their motto is “there is nothing alien about hunger.” The volunteers personally deliver the food to each of those counties. This was a logistical challenge, and it did not take long for the project to grow too large for a group of volunteers to run. So, UFO underwent some changes, and it became the organization it is today – an all-volunteer group that distributes food to 12 food pantries in Kanawha and Putnam Counties during the months of January, February, and March. These months are when utility bills are the highest, and when it’s hardest to make a limited income stretch far enough to cover even the basics.
The pantries that receive food from UFO are: Covenant House, Elk Valley Improvement Council, Mountain Mission, Rand Food Pantry, St. Albans Care and Share, The Salvation Army, South Charleston Community Civic Council, United Community Service, Upper Kanawha Valley Improvement Council, Christian Community Cupboard, Nitro Community Services, and Putnam Federated Services.
Last year alone, in a shining example of achievement and impact, nearly 30,000 people benefited from the food UFO provided. UFO’s dedication for 18 years is positive proof of both ongoing involvement and great achievement.
The most innovative, and phenomenal, part of UFO is that it is an independent, non-profit organization that relies entirely on donations and volunteers. With no salaries and no overhead, there is much more money to purchase food. The weekly volunteers who help with the food distribution, including students from Job Corps, high school students completing community service credits, various union members, and people from the community, make UFO succeed. In UFO’s 18 years of existence, no volunteer has even received a dime of compensation. All monetary donations go to purchasing food, and all the food goes to feeding the hungry. Through the help of local philanthropists and businesses, UFO has also been provided with rent-free space out of which to operate every year.
UFO has been helping to feed the hungry for more than 18 years, because, as their motto says, “There’s nothing alien about hunger.”