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Changes to SNAP Threaten Food Security in Western North Carolina — ‘What Happened to That American Dream Again?’

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The screen door slams, punctuating our conversation as a couple navigates a sleeping baby, undisturbed and still in her car seat, through the entryway of the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry headquarters in Black Mountain, North Carolina. The shelter provides relief in myriad ways for folks who find themselves in a pinch here in the eastern-most corner of Buncombe County, just down the hill from the Asheville. Food, clothing, wood for the wood stove and stipends for gas are all distributed from this quaint and mostly volunteer-run community center. The ministry serves as the last bastion of refuge for many that find themselves down and out in the foothills of Appalachia. But recent chatter from the White House surrounding the upcoming renewal of the Farm Bill, which regulates food relief, has local pantries concerned for the future well-being of the people they serve here.

“It is a different generation,” said Amy Meier. As the Buncombe County Outreach Coordinator for MANNA, the primary food bank in western North Carolina, she sets up shop on the dining room table in the break room at SVCM every other week with a laptop, a pocket scanner and a hotspot for internet. In many ways, she has become a reliable port in the storm, helping anyone who walks in sign up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the modern iteration of food stamps.

“It’s a different world than when my parents grew up,” she said. “I was raised from farm people in the Midwest, and our ethic was that if you work really hard, you could raise your family and it would pay off. You put in your 40 hours, and you can not only feed your family, but you can have a decent living and a nice life, and maybe even send your kids to college and have a vacation. But that’s just not the world we live in anymore, and so people still have those values and feel guilty that they can’t make that happen. People are saying, ‘What happened to that American dream again? I didn’t expect to be a millionaire, but I did think it wouldn’t be this hard by now.’”

Emerging from the clouds of the recession, the ground below looks quite different now in the American economic landscape. While the national unemployment rate sits at a comfortable 4.1 percent, having steadily declined since its 2010 peak of 10 percent, the number of minimum wage jobs has seen a steady increase, as has the average housing cost, energy cost and even the cost of food.

Cities like Asheville, former bastions of low cost rent, have seen a steady uptick in the wake of the “Airbnb boom,” and the small town real estate renaissance, forcing a median and low income diaspora of families to move to the outskirts of town. Those remaining in the city are left to fend for themselves in low wage jobs with competitive hours.

In 2017, SVCM provided food to 4,670 households in a region where the entire population is just less than 13,000, according to 2010 census data, although the region has grown in the last eight years. And while the numbers of SNAP users declined significantly in the U.S. overall since the throws of the recession, 43 million Americans still rely on food stamps as a supplement to help keep food on the table.

A 2015 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service found North Carolina to be the eighth-most food insecure state in the nation. In 2016, more than 20,300 western North Carolinians received SNAP.

“What we see that a lot of people don’t understand is that about 45 percent of the people that receive food assistance have earned income. Almost half your caseloads are already working,” said Phillip Hardin, economic services director at the Buncombe County Department of Health & Human Services. “They are working, but it’s just not enough to get off of assistance.”

“Food insecurity is huge in our area, and we know that,” said Cheryl Wilson, the director of SVCM. She said that her clients depend on the bank to supplement their food stamps and what they can buy monthly.

“Food stamps typically only last about three weeks, which is why we provide food every 21 days, to help get them through that fourth week while they wait for their next stamps to come in.”

MANNA’s director Hannah Randall said that “for every one meal that we provide at MANNA, SNAP provides 11. So we can’t make up the difference if SNAP is significantly cut for people. When you think about the fact that we are churning out the equivalent of 39,500 meals a day, and that is just one out of the 12 needed, we can’t make up that difference there.”

“The Bi-Lo here has just closed, and last year we got 53,000 pounds of food from them, so for us that is a big loss,” Wilson said. While the pantry receives food from MANNA, donations from churches and from grocery stores, and even buys its own food from an Aldi in Asheville, the closure of that Bi-Lo means that this food desert is left with even more of a deficit. “Food is always needed, and there are many days where the shelves cannot stay open,” she said.

The federal program that would become SNAP was first penned in 1933 through the bipartisan Farm Bill, designed to permanently link agricultural subsidies with hunger relief programs at the time of the Great Depression. The idea was to use existing markets and food distribution systems to reduce cost and help feed families in need,while simultaneously providing stimulus to the nation’s farmers. Families would be freed to spend their tepid income to cover needs beyond groceries, which would, in turn, boost the overall economy.

Although just two percent of the national budget is allocated to SNAP, Moody’s Analytics calculates that the program generates $2 in economic activity for every single federal dollar spent.

Both President Trump’s proposed Farm Bill and Congress’ version, which passed in April, have been heavily criticized for hitting poverty-ridden areas like the Swannanoa Valley where it hurts. For instance, while the 2014 Farm Bill already required able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 45 to work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week, the Congressional draft would increase that age to 59 and would pile on 20 hours of job training classes, further burdening a demographic that is already largely employed and forcing the costs for these programs onto already overburdened state and county agencies. In 2014, the Farm Bill included a pilot project testing the effectiveness of work requirements. That program has not yet concluded, but the current Congress has proceeded with extensive work requirements in their bill despite not having the data from that four-year pilot program.

While some proposed areas of the budget would face insignificant increases, overall, legislators are proposing a 10 percent cut from the last Farm Bill, MANNA’s communications director, Kara Irani said, with the majority of those cuts coming from SNAP.

The bill would also lower the income eligibility significantly, which would hit high-rent cities with low wages, like Asheville, particularly hard. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts that such changes would remove benefits from more than 2 million people, primarily families that are already working. A third of of those affected would be children. Their April report also expresses concern that the addition of extensive work requirements and paperwork to prove it would put undue burden on state systems. “Experience suggests that the bill’s proposed work requirements would leave substantial numbers of low-income people who have various barriers to employment — such as very limited skills or mental health issues like depression — with neither earnings nor food assistance.”

Decades of cuts to the system left slim pickings for further trimming. “When we look at who is receiving food benefits through SNAP, it is the majority working families, children and seniors,” Irani said “You can be making well over the poverty threshold here and still not be able to afford food. It’s a huge grey area for us and a huge grey area for legislators. Any kind of hit on that side will really affect our area.”

The current ceiling for SNAP recipients is just $26,000 a year. A full time minimum wage worker only scrapes in a hair over $15,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly one in four Americans, 80.4 million workers, earned minimum wage in 2017. North Carolina shares that one in four ratio, with 2.5 million minimum wage workers in the state. Asheville’s Just Economics calculates that a single person living in the city would require an income of more than $27,000 a year just to get by. A single beneficiary of SNAP can receive no more than $192 per month, while a family of four can receive no more than $640. More than half do not receive that full amount, but what they do receive, and being able to put that cash towards rent, can often mean the difference between stability and eviction.

While lawmakers squabble over the nickels and dimes — the entire Farm Bill makes up just 4 percent of the national budget — the overall consensus from the boots on the ground in the battle against hunger in food deserts like western North Carolina seems to indicate that not only is the SNAP program helping folks to crawl out of poverty (the majority of SNAP recipients only use the program for around six months), but that it is extremely efficient at doing so. Programs like Double Up Food Bucks, recently piloted by Bountiful Cities, match SNAP users dollar for dollar when they buy local produce, doubling their buying power and putting money directly into the pockets of local grocers and local farmers. Chipping away at those protections could force millions of Americans who have almost totally clawed their way out of the poverty of the recession back into the hole.

Despite an army of volunteers and 70 percent of their food coming from donations, MANNA still found themselves with $5 million in operating expenses in 2016 from food distribution. Randall warns that while changes are needed to the system, cutting cost on food relief, the most basic of human needs, should not be an option.

“Complex problems require complex solutions,” she said. “And when they are oversimplified, it can really leave innocent people without the food that they need to live a normal, healthy life.”

Jonathan Ammons (@jonathanammons) is a writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician based in Asheville, North Carolina.

Appalachia

Ohio Valley Outlook: Expect a Slower Regional Economy in 2020

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Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource
Photo: Becca Schimmel/Ohio Valley ReSource

This piece was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Ohio Valley’s economy could see slower growth in 2020 amid continued anxiety about trade, and possible downturns in both energy and manufacturing, according to analyses and forecasts by regional economists.

Michael Hicks directs the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University in Indiana where he forecasts the health of the manufacturing sector. Hicks expects manufacturing to slow down, and he blames the tariffs levied under President Donald Trump’s administration. Hicks said the costs imposed by the trade war are playing out in markets across the region and he predicts the Ohio Valley’s economic growth to slow dramatically in 2020.

“You will see layoffs certainly, lower hours, less generous bonuses both this year and next year, less demand for power which is going to be important particularly in Kentucky and West Virginia, as manufacturing firms both use less metallurgical coal and less coal for electrical power,” Hicks said.

‘One tweet away’

A report Hicks co-authored shows the impact of manufacturing employment on the overall health of the United States economy has diminished. Production is still a large share of the economy. But, he said, the economies of Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia are heavily dependent on exports, which is why the trade war has and will continue to have a large impact.

Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

The Trump administration has made some recent moves to improve trade relations. The United States Mexico Canada Agreement or, USMCA, would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement or, NAFTA. USMCA has passed the House and is still pending in the Senate. But Hicks said that trade deal doesn’t offer much assurance.

“The USMCA passage is essentially for your typical manufacturing firm it improves the confidence that we’re not going to have a trade war with our big partners in Canada and Mexico,” Hicks said. “But to just speak candidly, we’re always one tweet away from a new adversary in the trade war.”

He said if European firms are less interested in buying higher-priced American products it’s enough to cause a significant decline in the demand for goods produced in the U.S. Hicks said that could have a bigger effect in the region than in the country as a whole.

“Which is enough to push Kentucky and West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois into a localized recession,” he said. “It’s not enough for a national recession, but it’s enough to give us the feel and taste of what a recession would be like.”

Of the three states, Ohio’s larger economy is also more diverse and follows national trends more closely. Zach Schiller is an economist with Policy Matters Ohio, an economic research institute.

“Ohio is not an island, you know, our economy is closely integrated into the national and international economies,” Schiller said.

Schiller said the largest employers in Ohio are either national or international companies and he expects any change in the state’s economy to be similar to what happens nationally.

Still Recovering

In Kentucky, manufacturing plays a significant role in the state’s economy. Jason Bailey director the left-leaning Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. He said manufacturing has grown in large part because of the auto industry, but carmakers are seeing a slowdown.

“We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing over the last couple decades across the state and industries like apparel or furniture manufacturing or computer parts manufacturing, that has often been to cheaper locations like China and in Latin America,” Bailey said.

Bailey said Kentucky still hasn’t fully recovered from the last recession and it’s facing a tough year ahead with state budget cuts likely.

West Virginia is in a similar position with even fewer signs of economic recovery. West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics is predicting the economy will expand by about point two percent annually for the next five years. The Executive Director of the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy Ted Boettner said that’s the lowest growth rate WVU has predicted for the state in the past seven years.

“You know since our last economic recession that began in 2007, West Virginia has seen less than a 1 percent increase in job growth over that time,” Boettner said.

Pipeline stacked in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by: Larry Dowling/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Boettner said the state’s economy has always been on a “roller coaster ride” based on energy markets. The downturn in coal has hit hard, of course, but that was somewhat offset recently by a boost from natural gas and pipeline construction work. Now, however, one major pipeline project is complete and some others have been halted by legal challenges. Boettner said that focus on natural resource extraction can hamper other kinds of growth.

“A lot of other industries, especially ones based in the knowledge-based economy don’t really want to be around extractive industries,” Boettner said. “They don’t want to be around a lot of pollution, and things like that. So you really are choosing one over the other in some sense.”

Boettner said the state has never had big urban centers to build a diversified economy around, but he thinks investment in education could help with that.

“I mean, unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I think the only way that West Virginia is going to really thrive, potentially thrive, over the coming decades will be unless there’s massive federal investment in the state,” he said.

Deficits Despite Growth 

The U.S. is in the longest period of economic recovery in modern history. Hicks said normally that would mean the country would be running a budget surplus and could start paying off debt or taking on big projects.

“We would have made some long term investments in infrastructure, highways, roads, particularly with transfers to local governments that are, you know, facing a lot of aging infrastructure,” Hicks said.

Instead, Hicks said, the federal budget has a deficit of more than a trillion dollars after tax cuts and what he calls unsustainable federal spending, including the trade bailouts for farmers. And he said those economic policies are not having the degree of stimulus they should, largely because of the negative effects of the trade war.

A report from Ball State notes the Trump administration’s 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was meant to spur private, non-residential investment. But whatever effect could have been expected was muted by a similarly large tax increase due to tariffs associated with the trade war.

“We are running a budget deficit of $1.1 trillion, which is considerably more than the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” Hicks said. “That was Obama’s large stimulus package passed in February 2009. That was only $856 billion”

As economists across the region watch for signs of the next recession, they also look to infrastructure investment as an area for potential growth. The Ohio Valley has massive funding needs for its roads, broadband internet access, and aging water systems.

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Fact-check: Is Jim Justice the First West Virginia Governor to Fight For Teacher Pay Raises?

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Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP
Teachers celebrate after West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans announced they reached a tentative deal to end a statewide teachers' strike by giving them 5 percent raises in Charleston, W.Va., Tuesday, March 6, 2018. Photo: Robert Ray/AP Photo

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, facing a competitive Republican primary in 2020, recently introduced an ad touting his accomplishments in office, including a focus on K-12 education.

The ad, released in a Dec. 4 tweet, features several West Virginians reading off a series of scripted accomplishments from Justice’s tenure. One of the accomplishments, voiced by a teacher, is that “Jim Justice is the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

This struck us as odd since governors of all parties regularly tout their support for teachers — a group that’s popular with voters and, in many states, a politically powerful constituency.

Teacher salaries have been an especially sensitive issue in West Virginia. Between 2005 and 2017, West Virginia teacher salaries never rose higher than 44th in the nation. That history set the stage for a 2018 teacher strike in West Virginia, which was the state’s first major K-12 walkout in almost three decades. Justice eventually signed a 5 percent pay bump, which is more than the legislature had offered prior to the strike.

So is Justice really the first West Virginia governor ever to push for teacher pay raises? His office did not respond to inquiries for this article, but we found that each of Justice’s five immediate predecessors either proposed or enacted teacher pay raises.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Democrat, 2011-2017

In his first state of the state address in 2011, Tomblin proposed a one-time, across-the-board $800 increase for teachers. “Frankly, it should be more and we need to strive for a day when our teachers are paid at a rate equivalent to the most important role they play,” he said in the speech, according to the Associated Press.

In 2014, despite offering few increases in his relatively austere budget proposal, Tomblin did include a 2 percent pay raise for teachers. The bill he eventually signed contained a $1,000 raise for teachers for the 2014-2015 school year. 

Gov. Joe Manchin, Democrat, 2005-2010

As governor, Manchin — now a U.S. Senator — periodically sparred with teachers’ unions over the size of his salary increase proposals. But both Manchin’s Senate office and West Virginia teachers’ unions agree that he proposed a teacher salary increase and signed it into law.

During his tenure, Manchin raised teacher salaries by 3.5 percent, according to a joint statement released by the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association when the groups endorsed Manchin’s Senate reelection bid in 2018. Manchin’s Senate office cited the same 3.5 percent increase when we inquired.

The legislation Manchin signed also improved teachers’ annual salary increments and allowed educators to move from a 401(k)-style defined contribution plans to a defined-benefit system.

Gov. Bob Wise, Democrat, 2001-2005

In his 2001 state of the state address, Wise proposed raising teacher salaries by $1,000, plus $2,500 in incentives. “Teachers are the heart of the educational system. We must honor the work of our teachers,” he said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Wise became CEO of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an education advocacy group.

Gov. Cecil Underwood, Republican, 1997-2001

In his 1998 state of the state address, Underwood proposed giving teachers a $750 pay raise. He signed a three-year pay raise into law later that year.

Gov. Gaston Caperton, Democrat, 1989-1997

Caperton was governor during a divisive, 11-day West Virginia teacher strike in 1990, but he ended up presiding over a significant pay increase for the state’s teachers. The strike was settled when all parties agreed on a $5,000 pay increase phased in over three years.

Last year, PolitiFact reported that most significant recent improvement in West Virginia teacher pay compared to other states came between 1990 and 2000, a period during which Caperton and Underwood were in office.

Like Wise, Caperton headed an education group — the College Board — after serving as governor.

Our ruling 

Justice’s ad said he’s “the first West Virginia governor to fight for pay raises for educators.”

That’s far off-base. Seeking pay raises for teachers is practically a rite of passage for governors, and West Virginia is no exception. Not one, not two, but each of Justice’s five most recent predecessors — Tomblin, Manchin, Wise, Underwood and Caperton — either proposed a teacher pay raise, signed one into law or both. We rate the statement Pants on Fire!

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Documentary ‘hillbilly’ Is Now Challenging Stereotypes for a National Audience on Hulu

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In April 1964, President Lyndon Johnson visited Martin County, Kentucky to rally support for his War on Poverty. The Poverty Tours culminated in August of 1964 with the signing of the Anti-Poverty Bill. Photo courtesy of National Archives/LBJ Presidential Library

It was somewhat of a homecoming when Los Angeles filmmakers Ashley York and Sally Rubin came to Appalachia to film the documentary hillbilly.

York was born in Kentucky, studied journalism at the University of Kentucky, and was always looking for the right opportunity to document modern Appalachian culture. Rubin was born in Massachusetts but her mother was from Tennessee, and much of her documentary work has focused on Appalachia.  

In 2010, York saw Rubin’s film Deep Down about mountaintop removal and reached out, looking, perhaps, for an opportunity to collaborate. 

“She thought I’d depicted Appalachian people as honorable and dignified,” Rubin said.    

Filmmakers Ashely York, left, and Sally Rubin, right. Photo: Provided

“We were kindred spirits with the topic of demonization and discrimination that has been so pervasively depicted about Appalachia,” York added.

In 2013, they began work on hillbilly. It started as an exploration of the term and the portrayal of the stereotype in all types of media.   

“The film seeks to elevate the stories and perspectives of a wide range of people living and working in Appalachia,” York told 100 Days one week before hillbilly’s debut at the Nashville Film Festival in the spring of 2018. 

“I’ve thought about media representation for a long time, and I would say this has not been an easy story to tell at all. We are definitely trying to use the film to abolish stereotypes about the region and to show alternative voices,” Rubin said. “At the same time, we are committed to complex, multi-dimensional portraits of this region. Those aren’t one-sided, and they’re not easy to paint.”

The picture they delivered is a vivid and nuanced portrait of a region. Where Coal Miner’s Daughter and Harlan County USA focused on the industry of the place, the story of hillbilly is told by the people who have spent their lives in the region, as well as the artists, poets, activists, musicians, who express what it is to be Appalachian.      

The widespread fanfare and critical acclaim that has followed has been astounding.In October, after a long tour on the film festival circuit, Hulu acquired hillbilly, bringing it to a mainstream, national audience.

Hart Fowler spoke with York and Rubin after the Hulu acquisition, about the two years since the release.   


HF: When you started this project, it was really supposed to be focused on the historical and contemporary portrayal of rural people and the term “hillbilly” in the media, but the 2016 presidential election became a significant part of the documentary. I imagine you weren’t prepared for the timing or the scale of that election when you began the project.

SR: We’d already been filming for three years when Trump and the election happened. That was never on our radar in the production of the film, and then we had to play catch to figure out how this story was going to play nationally and how [the election] would play into our movie. 

AY: We were looking for things to unify our cast and Trump was starting to become a thing. My grandma went to a rally and I was like, ‘what?’ I was very surprised by that. That was about the time we started to think there was something meaningful here. Both of us as lifelong democrats.

HF: That was a somewhat touching scene where you, Ashley, mention living your Granny’s dream of leaving Kentucky. Two years after the documentary and three years into the Trump Administration, have you noticed any changes in your family’s political views, or of their opinions on the current administration?

AY: My granny has a lot of great stories I’ve been recording, mostly in audio but also in interviews on camera too. It was kind of a natural progression for us to end up there, that November. I see them a lot, every time I fly in or out, I go through [Pike County] because it is close to the Cincinnati airport. So, I have a long relationship with them, sitting around the kitchen table, sharing stories. That’s just the way we operate and have for a very long time, so I think that’s why it feels so natural and organic– ‘cause it is.

There’s only a few people who we spoke with intimately in the movie who voted for Trump. Most everybody else is progressive and voted for Hillary, but we just don’t talk politics with them. My granny and her Uncle Bobby [the two Trump supporters in the film], from what I understand, are still enthusiastic for Donald Trump. 

We will see how things evolve as we get closer to the convention next summer. Let’s say somebody like Joe Biden became the [Democratic] nominee. I wonder if he would be interesting to them. He certainly wouldn’t have at any other point in their lives, and Donald Trump is not a shining star by any means.

Their point of view these days is very similar to what it was during the election. I would say ask them because we usually don’t talk politics. 

HF: Hulu acquired hillbilly this fall, but won’t release the total number of views or streams on their platform so far. But it is a big distribution deal and now much larger audiences are able to see the film. Can you talk about some of the feedback you have received since the Hulu deal?

SR: In January 2019, [hillbilly] went live on Amazon and Youtube for purchase, but this Hulu release was the first on [a subscription-based] streaming platform. The biggest response to me from the people that view it has come from writing in to our page. Even internationally, where it comes up on their Hulu, they talk about how it changed their lives and changed their views. That is really gratifying.  

AY: I’ve definitely been getting a lot of responses, a lot of emails, most saying, ‘I stumbled upon this movie and wasn’t looking for it. It kind of found me.’ People overwhelmingly have been moved by it and relate to it in a way, many with shared experiences with people in the film talking about being marginalized or discriminated against, people really relate to that.

HF: One of those marginalized people you show in the film is Billy Redden, who famously played the small boy in Deliverance that plays Dueling Banjos. He shares in the film that he felt taken advantage of by the film and his portrayal in it, and has struggled financially since. How did he react to your film?

SR: I would say 100 percent of the cast and crew loved the movie and were behind it. [Billy] loved the movie and felt that it did his story justice. He came on the road with us to a couple of festivals. 

AY: We did a crowdfunding campaign to bring him to Los Angeles when we brought the movie to the Los Angeles Film Festival. In hillbilly, Billy told us, “I was hoping I’d get to Los Angeles someday.” But that didn’t happen after Deliverance.  

We had sold-out performances at the festival, including at the Arc Light which is one of the most premier cinemas in the world. It was a great experience, with the red carpet and all that.  

SR: It was our second premiere in the heart of Hollywood and at the Warner Brothers studio that had made Deliverance. It was incredible, [Billy] got a standing ovation. He was paid $500 for Deliverance. We had a very generous donor at the film release that called in to donate $7,000 to him for his instability we showed in [our] story. 

HF: In addition to discussions of Deliverance in your film, director Michael Apted’s film Coal Miner’s Daughter is referenced and he is also a source, sitting to speak to you all about Appalachian culture portrayed in film. He also spoke at some of your screenings.  What was it like meeting and working with Apted, such a highly regarded and prolific filmmaker, in this project and the screenings of the film after?

SR: He came to our first screening in Nashville and everyone hooted and hollered [for him]. Our run here in L.A. was similar, where he had a long introduction and discussion with the audience. He was very supportive of the film, which was very gratifying after our five years of [work].

AY: It was great to spend time with Michael. We talked a lot together about Coal Miner’s Daughter, another film that was always on when I was growing up. I love that movie and it is such quality cinema. My dad and mom love that movie, my sister loves that movie; it was meaningful to talk with him and hear about his experience showing the film [all over the country]. 

HF: Sally mentioned you premiered the film in Nashville, a city that’s quickly changing and growing now, but is still the heart of Country Music, or historically hillbilly music. What was it like having this film show for the first time in that city?

AY: That was in 2018. The first screening sold out so we added a second screening. They had a red-carpet and we were the largest red-carpet of the [Nashville Film Festival] and a lot of the cast was there. It was really tremendous. Dolly Parton saw the movie and said it was wonderful, so it was great to have her blessing and kind words going into the festival. 

SR: The premiere was really something. That’s when we first spoke with The Orchard (an entertainment distribution company) and they made an offer and we negotiated for months eventually leading to Hulu buying the film. 

HF: Did you expect that coming in? I imagine the debut was a tense moment.

AY: Yes, [but] the movie was made with such loving care, I wasn’t worried that we were going to offend people or have a negative response. There were certainly people who don’t like the movie and have called it liberal garbage and who aren’t sensitive to our point of view and that’s fine. 

Most people appreciate the movie and learned something from it. I think people are very compassionate about story-telling and I felt good about that. 

HF: What’s next for the two of you?  Do you have any future plans to work together or are you moving on to personal projects now? 

AY: I’ve a long long list of ideas of projects I’d love to get made. Working on some developments with HBO and an Apple series this year, and some documentary developments that I’m doing, exploring all kinds.  

I would like to spend a lot of time making projects in Appalachia and Kentucky, absolutely.  AndI’m heading to New York tomorrow to go to work on a project on Broadway that I can’t talk about quite yet.  

SR: I’m working on a short, personal, animated documentary called Mama Has a Mustache  about being gender nonconforming and pregnant.

I am interested in working on a project in the future about queer Appalachia. I’d love to continue to work with folks from hillbilly and Deep Down, such as Silas House, Jason Howard and others with whom I’ve had a deep personal and creative connection over the years. It’d be amazing to align my two favorite communities in one film; the LGBT community and Appalachia. 

Hart Fowler is a freelance journalist and former publisher of 16 Blocks Magazine who has written for The Roanoke Times, C-Ville Weekly, Raleigh Magazine, Smokey Mountain Living, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Blue Ridge Outdoors.

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