Hunger in West Virginia — a complex problem tied to shuttered grocery stores, infrastructure issues and generational poverty — has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is one that advocates say requires state-level policy and funding to supplement the nonprofits and faith-based organizations that are trying to reach those in need.
“There are some people who are suffering out here,” said Richard Brett, who runs a food pantry in Princeton. His faith-based charity Tender Mercies Ministries, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers to feed its community members, registers at least one to two individuals or families every day for food giveaways and he saw even more during the pandemic. The lack of jobs in the area and emergency food assistance programs that fall short often push people to reach out for help, Brett said.
Yet, lawmakers devoted little attention to hunger during this year’s regular legislative session. Last week, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, announced a bipartisan legislative workgroup will start studying the issue to outline anti-hunger priorities ahead of bill drafting this winter.
The workgroup will be led by Delegate Larry Pack, R-Kanawha, and Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell. Lovejoy in particular has been a vocal advocate for anti-hunger legislation since he was elected in 2016; he says the bipartisan buy-in to the anti-hunger workgroup “sends a message that it’s a priority.”
But he notes it’s a complicated issue, which will require lawmakers to create practical yet effective policies. Here are six initiatives the new workgroup could take on to reduce hunger and support food charities, according to West Virginia researchers, policy analysts, charitable food network employees and anti-hunger advocates:
1. Creating a state-level office to address hunger — The Legislature needs to immediately create a state-level office focused on coordinating county feeding efforts, according to Josh Lohnes, food policy research director at West Virginia University. Hunger needs and feeding programs vary from county to county, and a state office would coordinate between state agencies addressing hunger (like the Department of Health and Human Resources and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture) and private organizations (food banks, local charities, local school nutrition offices, etc.) “This office would employ local community food security coordinators in each county to create some connective tissue around responses at the local level that are frankly often uncoordinated,” said Lohnes, who has spent years researching and writing about the state’s charitable food system and hunger. The coordinators would be focused on improving outcomes of state-backed nutrition programs, he said. Lohnes estimated the program could cost the state around $3.5 million per year, which includes salaries for community food security coordinators and state-level oversight staff.
2. Listening to West Virginians before spending federal relief funds — West Virginia has already received half of the $1.36 billion it’s getting through the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March. The federal dollars — the state will get the remaining $677 million later this year — can be used to support COVID-19 response efforts, public health improvements (including hunger) and more. Lawmakers will have input on how Gov. Jim Justice spends the federal money after they passed HB 2014, which requires the Legislature to approve the governor’s use of any federal emergency money that is more than $150 million. Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said it is imperative that lawmakers use this time to gather information from West Virginians about what they’ve experienced with food insecurity during the pandemic. He’d like to see the workgroup hold town halls around the state to hear feedback, then lawmakers should “turn that feedback into tangible policy results,” he said.
3. Transporting food to students in need — Feeding America estimates that 19% of West Virginia kids might experience hunger this year because of the pandemic, and hunger experts in the state agree lawmakers need to address feeding gaps for students during the summer and other unexpected breaks from school. Mountain State Spotlight reported on the ongoing gaps in summer feeding and for remote learners during the pandemic due to families’ lack of transportation and schools’ inability to deliver food. While many feeding programs have resumed due to reduced COVID-19 restrictions, student feeding gaps persist. Additionally, transporting food to students could help cut down on school food waste by putting food in the hands of students or other local feeding programs who need food. “If the school and county would stop to study the root of the problem, which we know is transportation, and figure out strategies to make those deliveries happen, they most likely would cut the waste down drastically,” said Jenny Anderson, director of Families Leading Change, a statewide advocacy group focused on improving schools. One plan from anti-hunger advocates that could be resurrected is one to pay bus drivers to deliver summer food; groups had asked Justice to use CARES Act money during the summer of 2020 to address student hunger in this way.
4. Increasing state-backed funding for food charities — More than 300,000 West Virginians relied on the state’s 333 food pantries for food back in 2016, according to research from the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia. Those pantries, on average, operated on a budget of less than $1,300 a month to pay for food, deliveries and more. Justice has for the last two years included $1 million for the state’s two food banks in his budget. But more state funding is needed as the problem has grown. “In the last month, I’ve applied for a million dollars in grants,” said Cyndi Kirkhart, who runs Facing Hunger Food Bank out of Cabell County. The food bank feeds more than 116,000 people each year. Kirkhart said her biggest need is funding as she is working on expanding the food bank’s options to include “medically indicated food boxes” with lean and no-salt added options for people with diabetes — West Virginians die from diabetes at the highest rate in the country — and cancer patients.
5. Examining barriers to food assistance programs — Anti-hunger advocates want the workgroup to evaluate any barriers that keep West Virginians from applying for or receiving emergency food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). One of those barriers: a bill lawmakers signed off on this past session that continues a program that requires TANF applicants be screened for drugs. DHHR has drug-screened TANF applicants since 2017, when the department launched the pilot project after the Legislature mandated it; from October 2019 to September 2020, DHHR reported that out of 2,067 completed drug use screening questionnaires, only seven people tested positive for drugs. Child welfare advocates opposed the bill, saying that the program was likely to cut off West Virginia children, who make up the majority of the state’s TANF recipients, from necessary food.
6. Guaranteeing free food for students — Last month, California became the first state to offer free food to students without questions asked or required forms.The state set aside $650 million for its universal school meal program starting in 2022, according to NBC Los Angeles. In West Virginia, 47 of the state’s 55 counties are already qualified and elected to serve free meals for all students, pandemic relief aside, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. Rick Wilson, program director for the American Friends Service Committee and long-time West Virginia child nutrition advocate, said lawmakers should prioritize implementing a universal free meal program in West Virginia that would continue beyond the pandemic.
Whatever policy decisions lawmakers make, the problem is large and growing: Feeding America estimates hunger now affects one in seven West Virginians, as well as one in five of the state’s children. State support is needed to supplement other anti-hunger efforts, said Caitlin Cook, director of advocacy and public policy for Mountaineer Food Bank. The food bank, based in Gassaway, provides food to 450 feeding programs across 48 counties.
“Nonprofits are not a sole solution to hunger, nor any social issue. Non-profits, for-profits and the government sectors all play a role in building food security,” Cook said. “Without commonality and those sectors working together, there’s pushing and pulling in opposite directions without concrete solutions.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, announced the formation of the workgroup June 30. 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.
If you’re a West Virginia resident in need of food, please contact West Virginia 211 by dialing 211 or visiting www.WV211.org for assistance.