By Mannix Porterfield
President Lyndon B. Johnson waged war on poverty back in the 1960s, and poverty won.
Now that matters have worsened among West Virginia’s most vulnerable occupants, a Senate committee took the first step Wednesday toward liberating children from poverty’s cruel fist.
An originating bill endorsed by the Select Committee on Children and Poverty — organized at the session’s start by Majority Leader John Unger — targets the hungry right out of the chute. The ambitious plan would give free school breakfasts and lunches to every child in the state, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Specifically, the legislation seeks to put nutritious meals into the stomachs of West Virginia’s poor children by taking more advantage of the federal reimbursement program for schoolhouse meals and enlisting donations from the private sector.
Language in the bill stipulates that every dollar in contributions must be used to buy food and cannot be used for administrative purposes.
The bill also requires all schools to adopt better systems for providing breakfast. Often in the rush and chaos of the morning, students don’t have time to eat school provided breakfast before class starts. The bill recommends allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom or after first period.
“No decision we make is formed in a moral vacuum,” Deacon Todd Garland, executive director of the Diocesan Office of Social Services for the Wheeling-Charleston Catholic Diocese, told the committee.
“Knowing this, we can choose to consciously build our decisions from a solid, moral framework. Social teaching is a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness.”
Senate counsel Rita Pauley explained that the originating bill is based largely on what the committee learned during hearings in Oak Hill and Beckley within the past two weeks.
One lesson stood out dramatically on the road, and that is the children simply aren’t getting enough good food to eat, since participation isn’t universal in lunch and breakfast programs, she said.
“If more children participated in those programs, they would have a better foundation for learning,” Pauley said.
“And that is the key to the genesis of this bill and its intended consequence.”
Hungry children aren’t prepared to learn and the nutritional deficits impact their overall performance in the classroom, she said.
Not only are some children going hungry, but many tend to satisfy hunger cravings with junk food, and that, in turn, exacerbates health maladies, among them obesity, the attorney said.
“Federal money is out there,” she said.
“It’s available to reimburse counties that provide a healthy lunch and breakfast. If you meet a certain level, the federal government reimburses 100 percent.”
Pauley said senators learned on the road that even middle-class parents, living from paycheck to paycheck, find it hard to keep up with the bill sent by the schools to reimburse them for lunches, in whole or in part.
“They might not be at the poverty level to be fully reimbursed, but children are being told to quit eating lunch because they can’t afford it,” she said.
Pauley said the bill would forge partnerships with communities, businesses and individuals to make donations and shore up the free food program. The initiative would begin in the 2015 school year.
While initial funding goes directly to buying meals, other initiatives are in mind — such as the “backpack program,” in which packs would be stuffed with food and snacks so children aren’t facing the prospects of empty stomachs on weekends.
One panelist, Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, suggested the attack on childhood poverty would be incomplete without addressing the root of the problem — an anemic economy, based on a comparison of West Virginia with surrounding states.
“I think we would want to address poverty through creation of a vibrant economy and government interplay in that has an effect,” Hall, an ordained Presbyterian minister, told the Catholic official.
Hall reminded Garland that he urged an expansion of the Medicaid program to embrace another 120,000 people and agreed this might work on a short-range basis.
Garland ran through seven tenets at the heart of Catholic social tradition, and the first was respect for human beings.
“Human life is sacred and the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society,” he said.
“Every person is precious. People are more important than things.
“Every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency. Corresponding to those rights, we each have duties and responsibilities to one another, to our families and to the larger society.”
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The Associated Press contributed to this story.