CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A heated debate broke out in the House of Delegates Friday night over a bill to combat childhood hunger in West Virginia.
Some Republican lawmakers said the free-meals-in-schools program would send a bad message to kids about personal responsibility, while Democrats argued there's a moral imperative to feed hungry students.
Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, predicted the program could set up children for failure, "destroying their work ethic" and "showing them there's an easy way." Canterbury suggested that students "work for their lunches" by mowing lawns and taking out trash at schools.
Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, said Republicans were trying to mislead people about the bill.
"I'm offended anybody in this body would dare say a child has to work for their meals," Poore said. "I can't believe someone would say a first-grader, a second-grader . . . a fifth-grader has to labor before they eat. This isn't an entitlement bill."
After an hour-long debate, House members passed the bill (SB633) by an 89-9 vote. The House made minor changes to the Senate bill, which senators unanimously approved March 30. The Senate is expected to agree to the changes, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will sign the legislation.
The bill would make free breakfasts and lunches available to every student in public schools, pre-kindergarten through the 12th-grade. West Virginia would become the first state in the nation to enact such a program.
"It's looking at how to feed the children in a healthy way, as well as increasing their activity," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour.
The bill would establish nonprofit foundations that would raise money to help pay for the free meals. Now, only low-income children get free and discounted lunches and breakfasts at school.
"Kids can't learn if they're hungry," said House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton.
Across the state, many low-income children aren't taking advantage of the free-meal programs. About 55 percent of children qualify for free- and reduced-price school meals, but only one out of every three students eats breakfast at school in West Virginia.
The program would take effect in fall 2015, starting in elementary schools and expanding into middle and high schools as additional funds become available.
House Republicans said the Legislature should work to create good-paying jobs to help low-income West Virginians, not just set up programs to treat poverty's symptoms.
Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, said churches and food pantries already have programs that feed poor people, and schools already provide free meals to students.
"There's already a safety net on the government level: It's called free and reduced lunch," Folk said. "It's not whether we think we should feed children; it's about whether we think the government should be the sole provider of food."