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Start of the School Year a Challenging Time for Those in Need

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This is truly a time of the year that our whole state looks forward to.

(And, I'm not just talking about football season.)

If you're a parent with children still living at home, you're familiar with this scene: new backpacks are full of notebooks and pencils, buses are out on the corner and the mornings are breaking bright and crisp. Summer is fading. Autumn is on the way. School is back in session.

With kids back in the classroom, it's a good time to remember that many of our schoolchildren in West Virginia come from families that struggle to put food on the table.

I had the opportunity this summer to meet with a broad coalition of West Virginians who are on the front lines of combating childhood hunger. It was a sobering meeting. One particular story broke my heart. A school administrator told me children stuff their pockets with hamburgers, hot dogs, oranges--anything they can find--to bring home for dinner.

Here are a few statistics to consider. One in eight Americans are now receiving emergency food assistance from local food banks. That represents a 46 percent increase in the number of folks fed between 2006 and 2010.

More alarming is this fact: one out of five children--that amounts to 16 million kids--are "food insecure." That's just a technical way of saying they don't get enough to eat. What's more,

62 percent of teachers in America say they regularly see kids who come to school hungry.

Some 200,000 children in West Virginia, more than 50 percent of our child population, participate in the free or reduced lunch program.
What do we do about this?

First, it is incumbent on all of us to get involved.Our food pantries, soup kitchen and shelters across the state do a wonderful job of meeting the need, and they need our help. Call the fine leaders at places like the Huntington Area Food Bank, Union Mission or any of the dozens of other relief agencies working in West Virginia. They would love to have you for a visit and show you how you can get involved.

Government food security programs are also a lifeline for families who would otherwise go hungry. West Virginia is one of four states selected to participate in the Community Eligible Option program for the 2012-2013 school year. That allows the state Department of Education to broaden its free meals program. Thousand more children who would otherwise not be able to afford school lunches are now eligible for the program.

At a federal level, I'm fighting to keep The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) strong. As Congress tightens its belt, it's so important that those who struggle to make ends meet have a voice in Washington.

After all, hungry children have a hard time concentrating in the classroom. That they earn lower grades than well-fed children isn't because of lack of intellect. It's too hard to study for a test when you're wondering where you'll get your next meal.

As we get back into our school-year routines, let's resolve to keep those less fortunate in our minds and deeds. Our future depends on healthy, happy students.


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