From the mouths of babes

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Barring a constitutional amendment from the General Assembly, more than 2,000 area students may soon learn the significance of the old adage: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agri-culture, 43 million citizens use food stamps. A new opinion, requested by Rep. John O’Bannon and penned by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (pictured), could force state lawmakers to refashion appropriations for state food banks.

At the request of Delegate John O’Bannon (R-Richmond), Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli recently weighed in on the question of whether state funds may be appropriated for charities not owned or operated by Virginia. Now, roughly $500,000 in charitable cash for the Federation of Virginia Food Banks may be headed back to state coffers.

“The question is not whether these proposed amendments serve noble purposes and that they would provide needed relief,” wrote Cuccinelli in his four-page opinion. “Unquestionably, they are and they would.” Rather, writes the attorney general, “the question is one of fidelity to the text of our Constitution. And where the Constitution commands or forbids, the government must obey.”

The $500,000 to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks was slated for the Kids Back Pack program, which provides weekend and vacation food for elementary school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. The federation comprises seven food banks between Virginia and Washington, D.C.—including this region’s Blue Ridge Area Food Bank (BRAFB), which served more than 2,000 students enrolled in the BackPack program in 2010. Two elementary schools in Albemarle County—Greer and Yancey—participate in the BackPack program. To participate, at least 50 percent of a school’s population must qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“Frankly we’re in an awkward position,” says Larry Zippin, a local resident and CEO of the BRAFB. “We mourn the loss of the additional food we could’ve acquired. Then again, it would be foolish of us to engage in a debate with the Attorney General’s office or the state legislature over the constitutionality of the issue.” Zippin says BRAFB remains hopeful that state officials will find a constitutionally viable way to recommit the state contribution.

Governor Bob McDonnell, who announced the $500,000 appropriation in December, was previously in Cuccinelli’s shoes. In 2008, former governor Tim Kaine committed to a $1 million appropriation for FY2009, while McDonnell served as attorney general. McDonnell did not offer a statement by press time. Rep. O’Bannon tells C-VILLE he requested an opinion in response to questions from constituent and conservative blogger Norm Leahy.

“I think it was a fair question to ask,” says O’Bannon, who points out that the state Constitution has retained its rule about non-state charities. “I can easily see how the food bank might be helpful to keep people off of food stamps. The problem comes if you have a government giving money to charity without any encumbrances.”

According to Zippin, the state’s seven regional food banks split appropriations evenly. “Historically, every dollar provides four meals to a person in our service area,” says Zippin. “If we received $115,000, that’s roughly half-a-million meals.” The cost to provide a student with a backpack full of food for the school year, says Zippin, works out to roughly $200.

Cuccinelli’s communications director, Brian Gottstein, points out that “official opinions do not create new law”—an echo of the statement he offered when Cuccinelli opined that Virginia could regulate abortion clinics (considered outpatient care facilities) as hospitals, which could carry a cost hefty enough to close clinics. Virginia may still hire charitable organizations for various services, so long as those charities submit to competitive contract bids.

Zippin says that the food bank remains committed to providing backpacks for those students who need food.

“We will not abandon Greer and Yancey, nor our schools in [surrounding counties],” says Zippin.

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