Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. For more stories from Mountain State Spotlight, visit www.mountainstatespotlight.org.
Even though more families are struggling to get enough food as the pandemic continues, hunger-related bills aren’t among the measures rapidly moving through the West Virginia Legislative session.
West Virginia was already one of the country’s hungriest states pre-pandemic. And the problem has only gotten worse in the last year as COVID-19 pushed families into unemployment and left some kids learning from home unable to access free school food.
That’s what Lisa Henry sees in Martinsburg.
“I know we’re missing kids,” she said.
Henry is a teacher and executive director of the Berkeley County Backpack Program. She oversees dozens of volunteers who fill grocery bags with canned soup, peanut butter crackers, fruit cups and granola bars to send home 650 kids every week.
“Our panhandle here is struggling,” Henry said. “The families who are struggling the most are ones who have several part time jobs struggling to make ends meet and a lot of grandparents raising grandchildren.”
According to Census data compiled by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, in February 17 percent of West Virginia families with children reported not getting enough to eat in the last week. That’s up from 9 percent in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The state’s two food banks have reported a 30 percent increase in need during that time period.
But while lawmakers are advancing a bill to drug test welfare recipients, measures that would directly address food insecurity are stalled in committees.
Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, has introduced the Summer Feeding for All bill in the House for the past three years. The bill would require counties to survey how many kids are in need of food during summer break or during emergencies when kids are out of school, like in 2020 when the pandemic halted in-person learning.
Lovejoy said he believes feeding families should be a top priority at the statehouse, but, unfortunately, that’s not the reality in today’s Legislature.
There’s no fiscal note attached to his bill, which, according to Lovejoy, was in part a strategic decision in hopes of getting it passed by the Republican supermajority in both the House and Senate. Both versions of the bill have bipartisan support.
“I don’t know what you could spend money on rather than feeding kids, but if it has a price tag people will shut it down,” Lovejoy said.
The bills have been referred to the House and Senate Education committees, respectively. Neither version of the bill has gotten on to a committee agenda as of publishing date. House and Senate Education committee chairs Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, and Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, did not respond to questions about the future of the bill.
But despite this, both House and Senate leaders insist they’re thinking about hunger.
“Every member of the Senate believes the health and welfare of our children is a priority,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, said in an email. “My understanding is that while the intentions of this bill are great, our state Department of Education works with our DHHR to ensure that all children who need meals are provided meals.”
Takubo pushed back on the idea that the legislature’s Republican majority had any effect on potential hunger legislation.
“No ideas here are ever completely shut out because of just because of party or sponsor,” he said.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the House rarely looked at insular issues like hunger but, rather, was more concerned about reducing the state’s poverty rate.
“[Hunger] is not considered in isolation; maybe it should be,” he said, adding that it’s too soon to speak on the future of the Summer Feeding for All bill.
“These are things that keep me up at night”
West Virginia’s hunger issues are connected to myriad factors including shuttered grocery stores, transportation challenges — about 9 percent of West Virginia households don’t own cars — and poverty.
A More Excellent Way Life Center Church on Charleston’s West Side has, like many West Virginia food pantries, served record numbers during the pandemic.
Lines for the church’s typically once-a-month pantry have weaved for multiple blocks through the heart of the diverse neighborhood.
Angi Kerns, volunteer community coordinator and outreach liaison for the church, said they’ve gone from giving out 100 to 200 boxes once a month to — at times — 300 to 500 boxes twice a month.
“That doesn’t include the people who come in [the church] every single day [for food],” Kerns said.
Like most pantries in West Virginia, a More Excellent Way relies on volunteers. The majority of the state’s 400 food pantries are run by elderly and unpaid volunteers, and pantry workers struggle to transport meat and produce without refrigerated vehicles.
But this isn’t a long-term solution, said Sen. Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier.
“A long term solution is a better-resourced system so we don’t have to rely on the kindness of individuals,” he said.
Kids are particularly affected by the state’s feeding gaps, and West Virginia leads the nation in feeding kids free breakfast because so many kids rely on schools for free food.
When Gov. Jim Justice closed schools last April due to COVID, families told Mountain State Spotlight they were struggling to feed their kids without transportation to and from school feeding sites as the state touted its summer feeding plan. Feeding plans looked different from county to county; for example, Kanawha County was among counties that could afford to use bus drivers to deliver food into communities, while other counties required parents to pick up food from schools.
The hunger gaps persisted as kids returned to school in the fall. Many weren’t in physical classrooms, and families couldn’t get to school food pick-up sites for a week’s worth of food.
Near the A More Excellent Way food pantry, a fire at a nearby Family Dollar created additional access issues. After the early February fire destroyed the building, Kerns immediately shifted her attention to low-income and disabled seniors living in nearby apartment buildings, some of whom relied on the dollar store for food and hygiene supplies.
“These are things that keep me up at night,” Kerns said.
The church relies mostly on community donations to pay for food purchased from Mountaineer Food Bank and boxes to pack the food and supplies.
Kerns said the church needs more money to continue feeding the community at the increased rate.
Hunger advocates asked Justice to spend CARES Act money on feeding kids, but the governor has not allocated any of the state’s portion of the federal funds directly to hunger relief.
Summer Feeding Bill would have prepared West Virginia for pandemic challenges
The Summer Feeding for All bill has failed to pass in the last two legislative sessions, even despite not asking for any money to fund the programs.
Jenny Anderson, director of nonprofit Families Leading Change, worked with Del. Lovejoy to develop the past and current versions of the legislation. Anderson, who lives in Barboursville, first saw a need for a statewide child hunger assessment after schools unexpectedly closed during the 2018 teacher strike.
She said had the legislation passed a few years ago, the state would’ve had a better handle on how best to feed kids during a situation like the pandemic.
This year’s House version of the bill, HB 2057, would:
Require counties to survey student hunger during nonschool days;
“Empower” county school boards to develop feeding programs for summer and nonschool times;
Require counties to report data and feeding plan information to the Office of Child Nutrition.
“At first glance it doesn’t say everything we want to, but it’s a good start,” Anderson said. “We aren’t asking counties to spend money but really just to figure out a plan.”
Anderson said she has struggled to reach legislators to build support for the bill as Capitol access has been restricted due to COVID, but she said she feels hopeful this year’s version will finally pass.
“If you can’t get this watered-down version passed, what is happening?” she asked.
Senate bill asks to drug screen emergency food assistance applicants
While so far there’s been no movement on the Summer Feeding for All bill, lawmakers have been advancing another bill that would continue a requirement that people who apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, have to participate in a drug screening process.
TANF provides temporary cash assistance to families to be used on food, cleaning supplies, medicine and more. The majority of TANF recipients in West Virginia are children, according to West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Deputy Director Jeremiah Samples.
The West Virginia Food for All Coalition, a group of nonprofit hunger advocates and food workers, has strongly opposed the measure, saying it would only act as a barrier between families — particularly kids — and food.
“The policy wastes resources and also hurts children who live in families where there is little or no evidence of a substance abuse issue. More parents are more likely to be excluded from benefits due to not completing screening than failing the drug test,” the Food For All Coalition said in an email.
The bill, SB 387, was introduced by Senate Health Committee Chair Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, and would continue a pilot project overseen by the DHHR, which has been in effect since 2017. It requires applicants to complete a questionnaire and flags participants for drug screenings. It is supposed to connect those struggling with substance abuse disorder with treatment.
From October 2019 to September 2020, DHHR reported that out of 2,067 completed drug use screening questionnaires, only seven applicants’ drug tests came back positive.
Samples told Senate Health committee members Feb. 23 that since the drug-screening program was launched in 2017, only one West Virginia resident flagged through the program has successfully completed treatment.
“Even if there’s not been success initially in getting someone into treatment, there are efforts being made,” Samples told lawmakers. “But based on experiences in our parts of the [DHHR], every time you try, you’re that much closer.”
Samples added that another goal of the program is to ensure employers that any TANF applicants DHHR is assisting in a job search can pass a drug screening.
Rather than more restrictions, Mountaineer Food Bank Director of Advocacy and Policy Director Caitlin Cook said she is advocating for more access to programs like TANF, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women’s, Infants and Children’s (WIC) federal assistance program.
“There’s a staggering increase in need and the more support West Virginians can have in SNAP, WIC and TANF, it lessens the loads on food banks,” Cook said.
Governor’s budget asks for $1M for food banks
There are only a few other pieces of legislation right now aimed at feeding, and Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, plans to introduce a state constitutional amendment that would affirm West Virginians’ right to food.
“A right to bear arms doesn’t insinuate a firearm is given to you. A right to food does make a bold statement of equity and combating food insecurity,” Walker said.
Lovejoy has introduced two feeding-related bills: one that would increase money seniors are eligible to use at farmer’s markets, and another other bill that would establish a block grant program for West Virginia produce farmers. The recipient selection committee would include a food insecurity expert.
Both bills require state funding, and Lovejoy said that price tag could mean they won’t make it through this session.
Cook said she’s monitoring any hunger-related legislation, including the Summer Feeding for All Bill, and she is intently watching the upcoming state budget proposal.
Gov. Justice has again this year included $1 million in his 2022 budget proposal for the state’s two food banks, Mountaineer Food Bank and Facing Hunger Food Bank.
The Republican governor didn’t mention hunger in his recent State of the State address, but Cook is hopeful the legislature will include Justice’s food bank funding in its final budget.
“We are hopeful with the fact that the governor has put that in his budget that we will continue to have support from the legislature to meet that need,” Cook said. “Hunger doesn’t care about your political leanings.”
Reach reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely at firstname.lastname@example.org