The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 1, 2013

With nutrition addressed by lawmakers, safe, decent housing next on list for kids

By Mannix Porterfield
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — Now that strides have been taken to fill their stomachs, West Virginia lawmakers want to make sure poor children have safe and healthy abodes.

Feed to Achieve was born out of Senate Majority Leader John Unger’s inspirational visit to his wife’s third-grade class.

Under that legislation, children are assured of a nutritional breakfast and lunch, financed via charitable donations.

“We attempted to tackle child nutrition with Feed to Achieve,” Unger, D-Berkeley, said, “and the next goal is to look at housing.”

As he plowed into poverty in the backwash of the state, in advance of his initial goal of keeping children fed, Unger learned of a girl who actually was raised in a tent.

Despite such a crude beginning, the girl went on to earn a college degree.

Unger found this nothing short of amazing but says inadequate housing isn’t a matter of isolation.

“The thing that’s different from other areas is our poverty is not on the streets like the urban areas where people can see it,” the majority leader said.

“Our poverty is hidden back in the hollows, the woods. A child that comes to school may have decent clothing, but you never know what they go home to. When you see a child, you don’t know where they’re going.”

Unger was shocked when he saw some of the domiciles in a rural pocket of McDowell County.

“I literally went into a home that was one of those metal lawnmower sheds,” he said.

“You go in and there’s a family of four — two children, two adults — and there literally was a dirt floor. Rugs over the dirt to cover it. For the septic, they flushed a toilet and a pipe went from it out into a river. Winters in McDowell are pretty harsh. There was no insulation or anything.”

Unger acknowledged that some parents make poor decisions.

“But that child shouldn’t be punished for that,” the senator said.

“If we don’t break the cycle, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve always got, and that’s being last in a lot of the good things and first in a lot of the bad things.”

Unger put his wife’s elementary school class through a make-believe session of the Senate a few months ago, asking the third-graders what bills they would sponsor.

One boy wanted an extra lunch provided, explaining that he could eat twice as much and this would eliminate his usual helping at supper, leaving more food for his siblings.

From that experience came Unger’s select committee, which gave rise to Feed to Achieve.

With food guaranteed under that legislation, Unger says lawmakers need to embrace the need for adequate housing across West Virginia.

As low-income parents become transients, moving from one hotel room to another, or facing constant eviction from rental property, children get lost in the shuffle, and their school attendance suffers, he said.

Students shifted from one dwelling place to another often aren’t enrolled in school, and that is an issue the committee needs to examine, the senator said.

“Housing is a concern,” he said. “That’s what we’re focused on.”

Unger’s committee met in Wheeling during interims, and will be on the road over the next two years, until all senatorial districts host a regional meeting.

In this year’s interims, the older panel, the Committee on Children and Other Issues, which includes delegates as well as senators, will continue its work.

A third phase of the Senate committee will be an improved work force.

All efforts are intended to save a generation, which, if successful, eventually will save West Virginia money by lessening such societal ills as dropouts, drug abuse, teen pregnancies and criminal behavior, Unger said.

“If we can go back to the future, we can create an environment that’s healthy for that child, and we can reduce all that,” he said of the negative results of children mired in poor surroundings.

Unger is a realist, realizing that not all children can be saved.

“There are things that happen,” he said.

“People are broken. But at least we can reduce it and reinvest and have a healthy population, healthy in the sense of not only physical health but also emotional and other things that go into it. That’s what our focus is. We’ve got to react. But let’s be proactive. Let’s go back to the future.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com