The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in 2011, 18 million American households, 15 percent of all households, were food insecure. That means that at some point during the year, those families had difficulty providing food. More than 14 percent of West Virginia households are food insecure.
Poor nutrition is often a matter of what's affordable. At a Foodland grocery near downtown Charleston, $4 will buy two red delicious apples, one pound of carrots and two sweet potatoes, for a total of about 870 calories. Alternatively, the same $4 will buy six jumbo franks, two boxes of macaroni and cheese and one box of raspberry gelatin desert, for a total of 3,020 calories.
In West Virginia, about one-quarter of kids live in families with income below the federal poverty level. About half of kids live in families with income below double the poverty level, generally estimated to be the level at which a family can get by with no outside or government assistance, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
Carolyn Buzbee, a teacher at Independence Middle School in Coal City, said at a recent public forum that her students are sometimes reluctant to discuss hunger and poverty.
"My students don't want to talk about poverty. I try to nonchalantly broach the topic: 'Do you know anybody that lives in poverty?' 'No, I don't know anybody, we're all good,'" Buzbee said. "But I know at the end of school they'll ask, 'Can I have one of those granola bars?'"
Crystal Foster Jones works for ResCare Beckley, providing services to people with disabilities in the Beckley area. She was visibly emotional speaking at the same meeting.
"I grew up in poverty," Jones said. "I remember growing up standing in line for commodity cheese and peanut butter, and I see the struggle, the same struggle today, 30 years later, when helping my families."
The bill's relatively few opponents have argued that feeding hungry families is a task best left to charity groups such as food banks and churches. But food pantries have had a difficult time keeping food on their own shelves since the Great Recession.
"We only give three to four days' worth of food, and you can only come once a month," said Kristen Harrison, director of Catholic Charities in Southern West Virginia. Her region includes McDowell County, one of the poorest areas in the country, where more than 70 percent of children live in a house that does not have an adult with a job.
State Schools Superintendent Jim Phares said he realized how important school meals can be last fall when he was Randolph County superintendent and Superstorm Sandy shut down the county's schools for 11 days.
"We knew it was absolutely critical to get kids back in school because they weren't eating. When they got back, we were giving them seconds," Phares said. "When you see kids without the wherewithal to get food when they're not in school who are licking their trays, you know how severe this is."