In 1922, Friends Drew Pearson and Walter Abel visited West Virginia in response to appeals for emergency relief. AFSC was young—barely five years old—but it had already amassed an impressive record in relieving human suffering.
The results of their investigation were published in an AFSC pamphlet titled Personality and Coal in West Virginia. They reported that "We are satisfied by our investigations that there is widespread destitution, and much need of relief, among the families of the miners.”
The coalfields were undergoing a painful transition as demand for coal fell after World War I. The top priority was food, especially for children.
Past relief by the numbers
From 1922 through the next 10 years, AFSC's relief efforts ramped up. By 1932, it reported that in one year:
- 22,441 children were fed one meal per day;
- 6,081 preschoolers, expectant and nursing moms were given milk rations;
- 2,670,230 meals and rations were served;
- 25.5 tons clothing and bedding and 24 tons of food and gifts sent to mining areas
These efforts sometimes including working with local and state governments to provide assistance. By the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected and the New Deal ramped up, AFSC had experience on the ground to inform new public programs and even influence federal policies.
Fast forward nearly 100 years, and the coalfields are once again experiencing a painful transition as coal jobs decline due to market forces, diminished reserves, and regulations.
And child nutrition is still a focus of work.
One thing that has changed, however, is that West Virginia is now a national leader in the field. The state leads the U.S. in school breakfast participation and is moving towards free meals for all students.
In 2013, AFSC and allies supported passage of the Feed to Achieve Act, intended “to eventually provide free nutritious meals for all prekindergarten through twelfth grade school children in West Virginia.”
Each year, AFSC has partnered with community allies and the state Office of Child Nutrition to expand free school meals by encouraging counties to adopt the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP can provide free meals for all students in schools with high poverty rates. AFSC also published and updated a guide titled Food Matters to support advocacy efforts.
The state became eligible for CEP in the 2012-2013 school year, when 35 out of 55 counties participated, impacting 283 schools and over 90,000 children. The next year, numbers increased to 39 counties, 335 schools and over 110,000 students, thanks in part to advocacy efforts.
Last year the provision reached 40 counties, 17 of which provided free meals countywide. A total of 374 schools participated with 128,041 children.
Although numbers are not yet available for 2015, Wetzel County, which had not adopted the program, decided to provide free meals countywide to over 2,800 students. Harrison County will expand the program to over 3,500 additional students. AFSC helped persuade the county board to pilot the program at three schools last year.
“There’s a growing recognition that kids need good nutrition to learn and be able to succeed and is as basic a part of the school day as classroom instruction,” says AFSC West Virginia Economic Project director Rick Wilson. “Feeding all kids cuts paperwork and can save schools money while also removing stigma and giving a break to working families. Everybody wins.”