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College students testify for bill to alleviate food insecurity

CHARLESTON — College students from West Virginia and Marshall universities testified about experiences with food insecurity in support of a bill called the “Hunger Free Campus Act,” and most members of the Senate Education Committee voted to advance the bill.

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, followed up the students’ remarks, though, by thanking them for their comments and then called the bill “nanny state stuff.”

“My first year in college, I lost 20 pounds,” Azinger said before casting a no vote. “I didn’t eat. I didn’t have food all the time. I went to Bible college. We went every Saturday, spent the whole day in the north side of Chicago in the ghettos visiting folks. I got hungry.

“So I think what we’re doing here, probably unintentionally, we’re creating a victim group of people who are experiencing the normal hardships of life. You go to college, sometimes you don’t have food, sometimes you get hungry. That’s life. It builds character. Nobody starves to death, and if you starve to death — I like the food pantry idea; sometimes folks need some help. But I think we’re nanny stating this thing.”

Senate Bill 292, which passed out of the Senate Education Committee, would provide grants to higher education institutions for “hunger-free campuses.”

Participating campuses would designate a staff member responsible for helping eligible students to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP. There would be options to use SNAP benefits at campus stores that meet federal nutrition standards.

Campuses would have a food pantry or ways for students to receive food in a way meant to reduce stigma. The bill calls for a meal credit sharing program or funds for free meal vouchers.

Joanna Switala, a master of public administration student at West Virginia University, told senators Tuesday that she has worked on student hunger issues for about three years. During her years as an undergraduate student, Switala said, she encountered many classmates who struggled with hunger.

“While waiting for my university refund in January, I had to wait for what was left in my apartment before winter recess, which consisted mostly of snack foods and recently expired freezer items like Popsicles,” she said. “There was one evening that my dinner consisted of two Rice Krispies treats.”

She described a need to reduce stigma and provide more information about food insecurity.

Two more speakers, Madison Santmyer, the student body president at WVU and Walker Tatum, student body president at Marshall University, also testified.

Their presentation laid out statistics maintaining that one in three college students experiences hunger each day. They said these students can’t afford balanced meals, sometimes don’t know where their next meal would come from and fear running out of food before being able to buy more.

“We want students to have more access to nutritional food in terms of making sure they’re eating healthy but at the same time putting everything they can into their higher education,” Tatum told senators.

Some senators said the students expressed valuable insight.

Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, said costs were not nearly so high when he was a college student. He wanted to know how much a meal plan costs these days. “I know it’s a lot more than I paid for everything,” he said.

Senate Education Chairwoman Amy Nichole Grady recalled living off cheap bean burritos while in college. Grady, R-Mason, thanked the college students for their perspective.

“A lot of us weren’t really aware of the issue of food insecurity on college campuses,” Grady said.