By Mannix Porterfield
Leave no child behind with an empty stomach, or else he cannot learn.
Acting on that premise, Senate Majority Leader John Unger returned to his wife’s school Wednesday to join Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in signing “Feed to Achieve,” legislation designed to keep children well fed to promote their physical and academic development.
In fact, it was at Berkeley Heights Elementary School in Martinsburg where Unger drew inspiration for the bill, the product of a special panel, Children and Poverty, organized at the start of the 2013 legislative session.
The idea is to provide all children in West Virginia with breakfast and lunch in a public-private venture that, if successful, can draw down some major federal dollars.
Unger had gone to the school at the behest of his wife, Cara, a teacher, and wound up addressing the entire 3rd grade in a mock Senate floor session. He named all the students “senators” and asked them to propose two bills.
One advanced by a student called for a longer recess.
But the other idea, an extra lunch, came from a little boy who wanted to eat twice as much so that by skipping supper there would be sufficient food at the table that evening for his parents and brother.
Unger was touched by that.
“What was significant about this was, those children actually spoke truth to authority,” the majority leader said.
“It’s a great story in the sense of how people can make a difference in the process. Those children will witness how people can make a difference like they made, not only in their lives but other children in West Virginia as well.”
Unger viewed the boy’s pathetic circumstances as more than another hard-luck tale in school.
“It was an epiphany,” he said.
“It opened up, allowing me to see where we spend a lot of time, resources and effort reforming education and we seem to be getting the same results we’ve always gotten. At that very moment, it touched both my heart and my mind.”
Unger, D-Berkeley, said the state could provide the best schools, curriculum, teachers and technology.
“But if children are thinking about where the next meal is coming from, as that little boy did, or what type of home they’re going to go to, or if they’re able to go home that evening, they’re not present in that classroom,” the majority leader said.
“If they’re not there, they’re not going to learn.”
A child is in a critical stage from birth to age 8 in developing mentally, physically and emotionally, Unger said.
“And if you have trouble with nutrition, research shows children cannot develop to their full potential,” he said.
“They’re at that age when minds are being wired and they’re growing. It has an effect later on in adulthood — mentally, physically, emotionally, academically. That’s what this bill (SB633) is all about.”
The measure didn’t sail without some criticism, leveled chiefly by Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, noting in a House speech that Japanese children perform menial tasks on campus to pay for meals. Canterbury said he was concerned that “Feed to Achieve” does nothing to instill the virtues of individual responsibility.
“This legislation in no way takes away any responsibility from parents in providing for children,” Unger countered.
“There are already programs out there for free and reduced lunch and breakfast. Families qualified still continue to pay. All this does is augment what’s being done as far as the public-private partnership.”
While other states provide food at no direct cost to parents, this is the first one that embraces the private sector via contributions, he pointed out.
The idea is to let schools serve breakfast on a delayed basis, after the first class, when smaller children are more settled, Unger said. If the participation rate is increased 20 percent, he said, the program could leverage as much as $14 million from the federal government.
Eventually, the venture could be expanded to a “backpack program,” so needy children could tote foodstuffs home to boost nutrition.
State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares recently said some children go without food an entire weekend and stay hungry until returning to classes on Monday.
“If you have lack of nutrition, it stunts the growth of that child and his development,” Unger said.
“This translates into poor academic performance and physical health problems come later, along with behavioral issues that lead to domestic violence, teenage pregnancy, and incarceration. And those are problems that we have to pay a lot of money for later.”
Unger’s select committee held two hearings during the session — one in Oak Hill, the other in Beckley — and the senator wants to provide a public screening of “A Place At The Table” focusing on childhood hunger within a couple of months in Beckley.
Unger’s appearance before the 3rd graders came in a region fraught with socio-economic difficulties.
“The vast majority were in the same boat as that little boy,” he said.
“It was not just that little boy. He was only voicing what a lot of his fellow students experience on a regular basis.”
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