POLITICS

W.Va. Senate plan would give every kid free lunch

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Photo - Schoolgirl holding plate of lunch in school cafeteria
Schoolgirl holding plate of lunch in school cafeteria

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia would be the first state in the nation to give free school breakfast and lunch to every elementary school student under the provisions of an ambitious bill advanced by the state Senate on Wednesday.

The bill, titled the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act, would pay for the expanded lunch programs through additional federal funding and private donations and grants. The Department of Education and every county board of education would establish nonprofit funds to collect contributions.

Donors have not yet been lined up but representatives from the state Chamber of Commerce and the state car dealers' association both said that their members would be eager to participate financially.

The federal government currently reimburses the state for every meal served in the schools, but the reimbursement levels vary depending on the wealth of the student's parents. The state receives about $3 per meal for students who qualify for free lunch and about $2.50 for reduced price lunches, but only 30 cents for students who do not qualify for reduced prices.

The bill estimates that a 30 percent increase in school breakfast participation coupled with a 10 percent increase in school lunch participation would bring in nearly $13 million in additional federal funds. As private funds become available they would be used to phase out payments from parents of elementary school students.

The bill does not use any additional state funding. The combination of federal and private money would be used to pay for the program. It requires every dollar in contributions to be used to buy food, not for administrative purposes.

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the bill's lead sponsor, said the state already has the facilities and staff to administer the extra lunches, so all donations would go directly to food.

In West Virginia 53 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals, according to West Virginia Kids Count. But only 36 percent of students participated in the breakfast program last year. The discrepancy is due to the way the meals are delivered and the stigma surrounding the meals.

To improve participation in the meal programs and collect more federal funding, the bill requires all schools to adopt better systems for providing meals, specifically breakfast. Often in the morning rush, students don't have time to eat school-provided breakfast before class starts. The bill recommends allowing students to eat breakfast in the classroom or after first period. It also recommends so-called "backpack" programs in which kids are given non-cooked food, like fruit or crackers, to take home.

Richard Goff, the state's director of child nutrition in schools, said counties that have already instituted these programs have participation rates as high as 84 percent, while counties that have not have rates as low as 20 percent.

And as more students of all income levels get free meals, the stigma associated with the meals should recede.

Janet Poppendieck, a sociologist at City University of New York and the author of "Free for All: Fixing School Food in America," said the stigma can be especially pernicious.

"It isn't just the stigma that attaches to the students; the whole program gets infected if you will," Poppendieck said. "In places where the stigma is intense students will refer it to as 'welfare food.'"

Poppendieck also said that as more students participate, the cost per meal served goes down and quality can go up. That's because fixed costs, like utility bills and salaries, stay the same but are spread out over more meals served. When told of the West Virginia bill, Poppendieck said she was amazed. She called it highly innovative.

State Superintendent Jim Phares, the former superintendent in Randolph County, said he had an epiphany when Randolph County schools had to close for 11 days following Hurricane Sandy.

"We knew it was critical to get kids back in school because they weren't eating. When they got back we were giving them seconds," Phares said. "When you see kids without the wherewithal to get food when they're not in school, who are licking their trays, you know how severe this is."

Bob Brown, coordinator of Reconnecting McDowell, said schools serve more food on Mondays and Fridays because kids come to school hungry after the weekend and then stock up before they leave for the weekend. Reconnecting McDowell aims to improve opportunities in McDowell County, one of the state's most impoverished regions.

The legislation originated in the Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty which passed it unanimously. Unger said he expects the full Senate to vote on the bill Friday and he expects broad bipartisan support.

"If the money's there and the food is there, you ought to feed the child," Unger said.

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