Editor's Note: The following article is part of the West Virginia Press Association's series on the "Our Children, Our Future" Coalition. Journalist George Hohmann is following the coalition's efforts, providing reports from its organizational meetings this month through its attempts to have impactful legislation passed during the 2014 state legislative session.
BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. - Describing the 116 activists and community members gathered Friday to discuss eliminating poverty in West Virginia, Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, noted the group's "energy and inspiration."
Walesca Marrero of the Taylor County Collaborative Family Resource Network in Grafton talks with Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, before Unger spoke Friday at the Our Kids, Our Future Coalition’s policy workshop in Bridgeport.
"All throughout West Virginia, a lot of people have given up," he said. "That's not what's in this room. There's a lot of energy and inspiration."
Proposals discussed at the "Our Children, Our Future" daylong session at the Bridgeport Conference Center ranged from how to remove soft drinks from the food stamp program - now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP - to how fresh food can be made more accessible.
Dana Singer, system coordinator for the Mid-Ohio Valley Rural Health Alliance, said sugary, acidic drinks are marketed directly to children, even though drinks like Mountain Dew can damage children's teeth.
Mary Beth Shea, oral health coordinator for the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said mothers giving children sugary, acidic drinks has become pervasive.
"Eighty percent of tooth decay is in 20 percent of our population and it is focused in our low-income population," she said. "There are no mechanisms in current programs to replace teeth."
"West Virginia consistently ranks No. 1 in poor oral health in the nation," Shea said. "We have two paths we can take. One is of health, where we try to help all of the population."
Singer finished Shea's sentence, "Or, we can pay for things we pay for twice - first the purchase, then the treatment."
At the breakout session on making fresh food and vegetables more accessible, the discussion by the 24 participants ranged from the general to the specific.
Elizabeth Cruikshank, a volunteer with Main Street Fairmont, said she is appalled at the lack of fresh produce in some Fairmont-area supermarkets and that some people don't seem to care.
Savanna Lyons, program manager of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, polled participants about advocates of fresh produce access. The group came up with a long list, ranging from the state Department of Agriculture to the AARP.
Then she asked for a list of barriers to access. One of the first barriers mentioned is that only 20 percent of the farmers' markets in the state accept SNAP benefits.
Participants said the major problem appears to be a lack of Internet access at some markets. It was said that benefits are distributed on debit cards, and Internet access is required for the cards to work.
Sen. Unger was the keynote speaker at the Bridgeport workshop and a similar session earlier in the week at Beckley. At Bridgeport, Unger said he has been told that one in five children born in West Virginia is born drug-addicted. "Compound that with poverty, neglect, abuse and other traumas," he said. "How can that child grow into a healthy adult?"
Observing that many people in West Virginia have given up on improving West Virginians' quality of life, Unger said he learned a term in Logan County for that lack of hope: "Appalachian fatalism"
Unger challenged the participants to change the political winds. "That's what you're doing," he said. "'Appalachian fatalism' -the darkness that has set on this state - you're blowing this away. And the system will respond."
The workshops were funded by the Kellogg Foundation and organized in large measure under the "Our Children, Our Future" banner, which aims to eliminate poverty in West Virginia.
Both workshops were sponsored in part by the West Virginia Coalition for Healthy Kids and Families and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The Beckley workshop had 35 co-sponsors; the Bridgeport workshop had 40, said Kent Spellman, executive director of The Hub in Fairmont.
The workshops aim to build momentum to get policy changes through the state Legislature next year. Policies from both workshops will be honed at a Sept. 24 symposium in Charleston and presented Sept. 25 to the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, said participants will meet on Dec. 13 to vote on the 18 or so policies that have been explored and select the four or five policies that will be pursued in the 2014 session of the Legislature.