Unger defends school nutrition bill

CHARLES TOWN — A school nutrition bill approved in a unanimous vote by the state Senate is being misread, says its sponsor.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said while the bill, which was produced by the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty, has been characterized as one that would establish a universal free school breakfast and lunch program, it in fact requires the parents of students ineligible for free meals to pay for them.

Students at Ranson Elementary make their way through the lunch line. A bill that would expand meal programs in West Virginia schools won unanimous approval in the Senate this week, but its sponsor Democrat John Unger says many misunderstand what the legislation would do.

Students at Ranson Elementary make their way through the lunch line. A
bill that would expand meal programs in West Virginia schools won unanimous
approval in the Senate this week, but its sponsor Democrat John Unger says many
misunderstand what the legislation would do.

Sen. John Unger is pointing out that many media commentators have misread a school nutrition bill that passed the Senate with the universal, bipartisan support.

“Where they have gotten it wrong is, while it is free to children, it does not take away the responsibility from the parents,” Unger said. “No part of this takes away the responsibility of parents who can pay to pay. They should pay, and they will continue to pay. However, we’d also like to encourage people to donate.”

The bill gives the power to establish rules governing which students receive free or reduced-price to each county school board, subject to statewide guidelines.

“It not only addresses the issue of child poverty and child hunger, but it also empowers the community to address the issue,” Unger said. “It is not just leaving it up to government, but setting up public-private partnerships that will allow for community participation.”

These public-private partnerships consist of foundations established by county boards of education to accept private donations and endowments to help pay for meal programs in their county. It specifies that none of the funding can be used to pay for personnel or administrative expenses.

“This bill makes sure no child will go hungry in West Virginia,” Unger said, adding the measure lets counties experiment and innovate to find ways to increase participation  “Right now participation levels are pretty low. This bill ensures that every child will have access to a nutritious breakfast and lunch.”

While more than half of West Virginia’s students come from households with income low enough that they qualify for means subsidized by the federal government, Unger said only around two thirds participate in lunch programs and less than one third participate in breakfast programs.

“The way we’ve done it is by making the existing breakfast program more integrated into the school day, therefore increasing participation, which would maximize the federal dollars that we get.”

Unger said the academic benefits of nutrition programs are well supported by empirical studies. “Their attendance goes up. Truancy goes down. Student achievement goes up,” he said, adding that arguments that the bill could lead to more childhood obesity are also spurious.

“From birth to 8 years old is a critical time in a child’s development in regards to their cognitive abilities and so forth. Also if you can begin exposing them to nutritious food early on, the idea is that they would acquire a taste for them,” Unger said. “The critics are saying we have a child obesity problem in West Virginia. That is true, but research has shown is that the reason we have it is that children are getting calorie intake but not nutrition intake. They are eating fatty foods and not eating fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The bill would also encourage boards of education to work with the Department of Agriculture to develop school gardens for both educational and nutritional purposes.

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