When West Virginia State Senator John Unger visits a school, he teaches students about his work as a legislature by bringing the political process to the classroom. “I ask them if they were senators, what was the one thing they would change in their school,” he says of the role-playing exercise. Two changes—proposed bills—are put forth, and the room of newly minted lawmakers spends the period debating the two measures, trying to find consensus and pass a law before the bell rings.
The Democrat was helping a third-grade class at Berkeley Heights Elementary School weigh the pros and cons of adding a second recess period or giving students an additional lunch when the insights of a nine-year-old lead him to his new policy goal: childhood hunger.
Weighing in on the pro-lunch side, however, was one boy who convinced both his classmates and senator on the issue. Unger called on the boy, and “He said, ‘I’m going to support the extra lunch,’ ” Unger recounted. “I said ‘OK. So Senator, tell the other senators why you’re going to that bill.’ And he said ‘I’m supporting the extra lunch so I have an extra lunch and I won’t go home and eat mommy and daddy’s food and my brother will have something to eat.’ ”
The boy’s experience wasn’t unique in the Berkeley Heights classroom: Unger called for a show of hands, and an uncomfortably large percentage of the students were dealing with similar hunger issues at home. Suddenly, it was clear to Unger that this debate was about more than role-playing.
Over the weekend, the West Virginia lower House of Delegates followed the Senate in passing the Feed to Achieve Act, a bill that aspires to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in the public school system statewide.
Unlike state-tax-dollar-subsidized lunch programs, Feed to Achieve will establish nonprofits to raise funds through private donations to pay for the meals and other food-related programs in the state’s public schools. The nonprofits will also work to maximize the availability of federal funds. “Every penny that’s donated will go toward buying food for children,” Unger explains. “And that fund can be used to augment the nutrition of the meals through buying local production, which stimulates the economy and helps farmers. It can also be utilized to buy food locally to help with backpack programs or the afterschool nutrition program, so children have enough to eat during weekends and holidays and summers. Also, we’re looking at doing community and or school gardens, and working with children to have a better sense of appreciation for where their food comes from.”
The bill passed with bipartisan support in both chambers, but Feed to Achieve isn’t without its critics. Unsurprisingly, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” was the rallying cry of the Republican opposition to the bill. Delegate Ray Canterbury (R-Greenbrier) repeated the adage a number of times, as the State Journal reports. “I think what we’re doing is undermining work ethic and teaching students they don’t have to work hard,” was his more elaborate critic, according to the State Journal. “I think it would be a good idea if perhaps the kids work for their lunches.”
The new documentary A Place at the Table, produced by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, played a roll in the debate too. “The movie itself really brought together a lot of what I had been studying and researching and talking about,” says Unger, who organized a screening of the film for his colleagues. “I thought it was a very good presentation of the problem and an inspiration to act and make change.”
Feed to Achieve is the first bill to come out of West Virginia’s Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty, which Senator Unger chairs. Created early this year, the Committee was born of “an epiphany that if we focused on the children we could address a lot of the issues of poverty,” according to Unger. A quarter of West Virginia youth live below the federal poverty line—and 26 percent are hovering just above it. Hunger is just the first issue to be addressed, with affordable housing and jobs programs balancing out the “three-legged stool” of policies the Committee will focus on.
But for all of the academics, experts and activists who have appeared in front of the Committee to discuss poverty issues, Unger attributed the bill to a West Virginian who can’t even vote. “The bill itself was inspired by that child in the third grade,” he says.