Lawmakers focus on hunger in West Virginia

West Virginia has one of the highest percentages among states of households where there was sometimes or often not enough to eat during a week of trying to get by.

That’s according to the most recent U.S. Census’s Household Pulse Survey, which showed that 11.8 percent of West Virginia households reported food scarcity between June 9 to 21.

That placed West Virginia seventh among states most commonly reporting those experiences. The average rate across the country was 9.7 percent over the period.

The number was even more stark when narrowed to families with children. In those instances, West Virginia reported a 20 percent food scarcity rate over a slightly different period, May 26 to June 7.

Numbers like those are among the reasons the House of Delegates intends to more closely examine food insecurity in West Virginia through a newly-established, bipartisan working group.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, last week announced the formation of a workgroup dedicated to using every tool at West Virginia’s disposal to help reduce hunger.

Delegate Larry Pack, R-Kanawha, and Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, will lead the bipartisan workgroup, which will focus on improving food insecurity, which Feeding America estimates affects one in seven West Virginians as well as one in five West Virginia children.

“I think our goal is to develop some consensus on policies that can move the needle, policies that are achievable and can feed more people. Hunger is one of the biggest problems facing our state,” Pack said.

“We have so much poverty, lack of transportation, lack of grocery stores. Part of it is related to our declining population. And generally it’s more expensive to eat healthy than to eat non-healthy.”

Other members of the workgroup are delegates Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, Ed Evans, D-McDowell, Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, John Paul Hott, R-Grant, Riley Keaton, R-Roane, Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, Kayla Young, D-Kanawha and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall.

“Everybody on this committee comes to it from a different place,” Pack said in an interview last week. ”

“We’re very thankful the speaker shares this passion and to bring it up to this level. So again it’s an exciting time, it’s challenging. Doing it in a bipartisan way will help us to get farther faster to address an issue that is not going to go away.”

Pack said he started becoming more aware of West Virginia’s food needs about 25 years ago after becoming involved with Union Mission Ministries “and started seeing up close and personal how many people went to places like Union Mission to get food.

“Those demands continue to grow, continue to grow,” he said.

Lovejoy has participated in an informal hunger caucus at the Legislature for several years. Establishing the work group will provide a more formal process, he said, while also looping in resources such as staff.

“I intend to ask people like the food banks — tell me the top five policies that could be enacted to move the needle on food insecurity,” Lovejoy said.

“You have to have policy that you can get turned into law. On the other hand, it has to be policy that actually does something to combat hunger. So you have to strike the magic balance between achievable policy that can get passed but that also will move the needle on hunger.”

Much of what the group will do early on is listen, Lovejoy said.

“A lot of this is here. They know what the problems are,” he said. “We just need to know what exactly we need to do to plug this hole.”

Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director at the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, praised the group’s formation.

Seth DiStefano

“I think this work group is very exciting, number one, and can really set the standard for getting input from directly-impacted people,” DiStefano said.

“Delegate Pack and Delegate Lovejoy have been very clear about their commitment to public policy to deal with hunger. To me that says they’re serious. I look forward to this committee advancing solutions and fighting for funding for initiatives that can make a difference.”

The past year’s pandemic — causing disruption of school attendance, leading to thousands of layoffs and leading many households to wonder how they could pay their bills — demonstrated for many just how real an issue hunger is, DiStefano said.

“Something the pandemic has really taught us is any of at any time we’re literally only one economic recession away from not being able to pay the rent, or not being able to keep the lights on or to ensure we have food for the week,” DiStefano said. “Hunger is something that has really impacted a lot more of our friends and neighbors than it had before the pandemic.

“One of the things we do very very well is feed children during the school year. We lead the country in free breakfast and lunch. When that was taken away, that really hurt a lot of families. You add on top of that people losing their jobs left and right, and that really opened our eyes just how important that backbone of the nutrition system is for kids.”

The working group can listen to West Virginians who have experienced food insecurity up close while also serving as a catalyst for public policy, DiStefano said.

“There’s a lot of people here who have been very serious in their desire to address hunger from a policy perspective,” he said. “In many ways hunger is a policy choice and there are absolutely things we can do as a community and a state from a public policy perspective to address hunger.”





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