CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'" Matthew 25:45
Here is the thing about child hunger in America: It is not inevitable. In fact, we nearly solved it once before.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a public outcry about hunger in America and across the world. Legislative champions like Senators Bob Dole and George McGovern reached across the aisle and gathered the political will to enact food reforms that slashed child hunger. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter signed on to a swift, coordinated, and effective government response. By 1979, food insecurity had been slashed and we were on the road to ending it completely.
Since then, we have dropped the ball. Public pressure waned. Because of economic changes, working families across the board now have lower wages and higher household costs -- so family budgets just don't add up at the end of the month. What's more: The extended families we used to rely on have become more disperse, and fewer of us farm our own food.
As a result, one in four West Virginia children grow up below the poverty line, and more than one in five kids experience food insecurity.
The result is that churches and food banks have heroically tried to fill the void. There are 40,000 of these programs today, compared to only 200 in 1980. But as anyone who has volunteered at a backpack program or a soup kitchen can tell you: It's just not enough. Thirty million more people are hungry now, as compared to 1980. If we are a society that cares about how we treat the least of these, then we should be ashamed.
Again, public pressure is growing. As part of the Our Children, Our Future Campaign, we held 48 community meetings statewide, and the No. 4 issue voted on this year was child hunger. Everywhere we went, churchgoers, teachers, business owners, and especially working parents and their kids -- told stories about children who were not eating well enough or often enough. Many of these local leaders were already running backpack programs, volunteering at soup kitchens, and holding food drives. But they wanted to do more.
And again, we have legislative champions on both sides of the aisle who are stepping up to the challenge. We applaud the work of Senators Corey Palumbo and John Unger, the Select Committee on Children and Poverty, every Republican and every Democrat who voted to adopt the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act.
In the field of community organizing, we like to say "if nobody's mad at you, you must be doing something wrong." If that's true, then legislators and advocates must be doing something very right.
The critics are coming out of the woodwork. Some folks claim that hunger and school performance aren't related. Have they ever met a hungry 7-year-old? Others claim that the state is too strapped for cash to take this on. Have they read the bill, which carefully draws funds from the federal government and the private sector? Still others say that there is no one in the private sector who will actually step forward to help out. Well, I'd be happy to introduce them to a few hundred compassionate community leaders who might disagree.
Finally, I've heard from some folks who say it's not their job to feed every kid. If they want to whine and complain about whose job it is, that's fine. The rest of us will be busy doing it.
Smith is the executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, one of more than 160 organizations part of the Our Children, Our Future: Campaign to End Child Poverty.