Editorials, Opinion

W.Va. Senate right to advance campus food insecurity bill

House of Delegates must follow suit

“My first year in college, I lost 20 pounds,” said Sen. Mike Azinger as he voted against a “hunger-free” campus bill. “I didn’t eat. I didn’t have food all the time. I went to Bible college. … You go to college, sometimes you don’t have food, sometimes you get hungry. That’s life. It builds character.”

How sad for Mr. Azinger that he suffered the pangs of hunger so severely in his college years that instead of gaining the “freshman 15,” he lost 20 pounds. How much sadder that he lost his empathy, too. Most people, after experiencing adversity or pain, seek to make the world a better place for others; then there are some who believe that just because they suffered, everyone else must, too.

Fortunately for West Virginia’s young people, there were enough lawmakers in the state Senate who understood that hunger is not something to be dismissed out of hand. The West Virginia Senate advanced SB 292 — the “Hunger-Free Campus Act” — with a vote of 32-2. (Azinger voted “nay,” as did Sen. Patrick Martin.)

SB 292 is not a handout to students. Rather, it creates a grant program for designated “hunger-free campuses” to establish on-campus food banks or enhance existing food pantries, as well as to help raise awareness of currently available services and foster partnerships to address food insecurity among students.

Azinger seems to think that being a starving college student is either a rite of passage that all young adults must suffer or the natural consequences of foolish financial habits. But food insecurity among students is neither of those things.

Since Azinger was in college, the price of tuition, room and board and the cost of living have outpaced scholarships and minimum wage. Once upon a time, the PROMISE Scholarship was a full-ride to one of West Virginia’s public universities. Previous generations could be a full-time student and work a part-time job that paid for their education. Times have changed — nowhere in the U.S. does a part-time job cover the full cost of rent, let alone rent and groceries. In most places, not even full-time minimum wage work is enough. According to 2023 data from the National Low Income Coalition, the fair market rate for a two-bedroom rental in West Virginia should be $865 (it’s usually much higher), and a full-time worker would need to make at least $16.64 an hour to afford that. (West Virginia’s minimum wage is $8.75.)

So it shouldn’t be a shock that a growing number of students struggle to afford their education, housing and food.

WVU has three food pantries spread across its Morgantown campus; the third and most recent just opened in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. During the last academic school year, over 1,000 students received services from “The Rack” and 900 students have been helped this academic year.

We already know from dozens of studies that kids don’t learn well when they are hungry — that’s why there are free and reduced meals at schools and backpack food programs for summer. That doesn’t suddenly change the moment a child turns 18: They still get hungry, and prolonged hunger will adversely impact their academic performance.

WVU understands the negative impact of food insecurity on its students, and it seems most of West Virginia’s senators understand it, too. We hope West Virginia’s delegates see it as well and pass SB 292 to help campuses across the state battle hunger.