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Students face hunger during summer break

Chip Ellis
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Jean Simpson, director of Manna Meal, talk about challenges related to child hunger during a roundtable discussion Friday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kelly Daniels has seen students steal hamburgers at lunchtime and slip them into their pockets when they think no one's looking.

Daniels, associate principal at Cabell Midland High School, doesn't scold the students because she understands they're chronically hungry.

"I'm going to go to them," she said Friday, blinking back tears, "and I'm going to find out what else we can do for them."

Daniels attended a roundtable conversation Friday afternoon organized by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., about how to feed the state's hungry children. He and others talked about what hungry children look like and why they don't get the food they need.

The event at Charleston soup kitchen Manna Meal coincided with discussion in Congress about the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, called the Farm Bill. Three-fourths of the bill goes to nutrition, Rockefeller said, and it covers the program that funds food banks and the supplemental nutrition assistance program, as well as other nutrition programs.

Jean Simpson, director of Manna Meal, said some of the biggest food problems children face are related to nutrition.

People don't grow or cook their own food anymore, so many children aren't eating fresh food, Simpson said. Some children don't even recognize fresh fruits and vegetables when they see them, other roundtable members said.

Several shared brief stories about having to teach children how to eat kiwi, or walking into a West Virginia classroom and encountering children who had never tasted oranges before.

Of the 388,338 children who live in West Virginia, 40,872 live in extreme poverty, and 128,000 are part of the supplemental nutrition assistance program, according to data released in January from the Children's Defense Fund.

Rockefeller acknowledged that the numbers are daunting, and he asked roundtable participants to tell him what a hungry 13-year-old looks like.

The answer: that teenager doesn't sit still, he sleeps in class, he has bad grades, and he gets sick frequently, with problems like stomach aches, earaches and colds.

Leigh Anne Zappin, executive director of the Huntington Area Food Bank, said that teenager would probably eat breakfast and lunch at school during the week. After school, he might go home with a friend and hope that friend's parents invite him to dinner. During the weekend, though, he might eat little or nothing.

Carla Nardella, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank, said she used to get calls from principals Monday mornings, saying there were children at school who hadn't eaten since Friday afternoon.

Her organization got a grant to start backpack programs to help feed students when they're away from school. The money pays for healthy snacks -- such as granola bars and cups of fruit -- that are discreetly slipped into the backpacks of children who need the food.

But while programs such as Nardella's offer some assistance to children when they're not in school, the extended summer break presents its own set of food challenges.

There are 206,190 children in West Virginia receiving free or reduced lunches during the school year, but 16,807 participate in the summer food service program, according to data released in January from the Children's Defense Fund.

One of the major reasons more children don't get food during the summer is because they can't get to places where food is available, said Gloria Cunningham, who coordinates the summer food service program through the state Department of Education.

Dana Holmstrand, an AmeriCorps worker, is helping launch a pilot program between the Huntington Area Food Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The project will create a food pantry at Cabell Midland High School that will distribute commodity food through the Emergency Food Assistance Program to children on summer break. Holmstrand said the goal was to have the pantry up and running within the next two weeks.

Some roundtable participants suggested using school buses to distribute food to children who can't get to it. While the idea was popular, it wouldn't be free, Cunningham said.

"It's all down to the money," she said.

Members of the roundtable mentioned several other issues during the event, including the lack of meat and dairy foods available at food pantries, stigmas attached to lunch programs, food deserts and obesity.

As he wrapped up the discussion, Rockefeller said next steps include speaking with children about their hunger needs and teaching people to cook and grow their own food again.

"We haven't solved any problems here today," Rockefeller said, "but we've raised a lot of questions."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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