May 21, 2021 | By: Carol Lea Spence

LEXINGTON, Ky., — Times were already tough in Breathitt County when the pandemic hit and made things harder. Then in the spring, the floods came. The Eastern Kentucky county needed a break. A partnership between God’s Pantry Food Bank, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and UK Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability brought some relief to the stressed region.

In August 2020, the food bank was facing a dilemma. They had lost some of their fellow food distribution agencies and were looking for other options. That’s when Danielle Bozarth, Programs and Partner Services director for God's Pantry Food Bank, reached out to Kayla Watts in the Breathitt County Extension office.

“Extension’s my go-to agency. When something happens in a county, that’s the first person I call,” Bozarth said. “We needed to figure out how to get more food to those who need it in Breathitt County. I told Kayla that we wanted to send a mobile truck with enough food for 144 households monthly.”

That’s a lot of food, so organizers had to find a site that could handle the operation. They looked at a variety of locations, but size mattered for drive-thru food distribution, and it wasn’t panning out. At that point, Watts, family and consumer sciences extension agent, approached Daniel Wilson, director of the Robinson Center, which is part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Wilson agreed to use the Wood Utilization Center as the food distribution site.

“We’re one of the partners in the community. We’re here to help,” Wilson said. “We have the location and the staff who could do it. We decided to help out the community and get the food boxes out.”

Three men loading food boxes in the back of a red car.

The staff at UK's RCARS loads food boxes into the back of a county resident's car. Photo by Kayla Watts


Since the first pickup day seven months ago, the team has distributed 67,000 pounds of food. Wilson’s staff boxes the food and loads people’s cars as they drive through the center’s parking lot.

“We don’t let them get out of their cars, because of COVID protocols. We just load the boxes in the trunk, and the people keep on moving. It really works well,” Wilson said.

Watts handles the scheduling and promotion. She also includes recipe cards and nutrition information in each of the boxes.

It all was running smoothly, and then the rains came. Much of the county was submerged, including the Robinson Center. But the work continued. Despite having to clean up flood damage at the center, Wilson’s team was able to keep the distribution site open in April. Watts helped organize additional relief.

“Because we already had this established relationship, I was able to work with God’s Pantry (on disaster relief),” Watts said. “They brought several pallets of bottled water into the community, and then they also did a food drop at a local church that was serving as a distribution site for flood victims.”

Heather Spencer and Wade Turner pack food boxes at the UK Wood Utilization Center.

Breathitt County Extension staff member Heather Spencer and Wade Turner, RCARS assistant director and extension field program coordinator, pack food boxes for the monthly distribution at the Wood Utilization Center. Photos by Kayla Watts


For those who the high water had displaced, the food bank provided snacks and produce that could be eaten raw, without a need for a kitchen to cook things.

According to Bozarth, the partnership with UK’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment has been a boon that’s benefited county residents during a particularly tough year.

“I’m glad that we’re there to fulfill (that need) in partnership with Kayla and extension and the Robinson Center. Until they say not to come back, it’s going to go on for a while,” said Bozarth, herself an alumna of the college. “We even received funding from Feeding America, who is our national affiliate. I’m so pleased and so happy, and I hope the families are happy.”

Watts and Wilson see this partnership continuing as long as the need continues. Watts is bringing in other community partners to help.

“I’m hopeful that it continues. It’s definitely a need in our county,” she said.

“We’re all here trying to help people,” Wilson said. “That’s what we do. Just trying to help everybody.”

Boxes are distributed on the third Wednesday of the month at the Robinson Center, 130 Robinson Road, Jackson, KY 41339. Residents of Breathitt County may contact the extension office at 606-666-1812 or breathittEXT@uky.edu for more information about the pickup.

Contact: 

Kayla Watts, kayla.watts@uky.edu; Daniel Wilson, daniel.wilson@uky.edu