RANSON — For students at three Jefferson County schools, the start of the 2012-13 school year means the end of school lunch bills.
The change is part of a federal pilot program made possible by the Healthy, Hunger Free-Kids Act, the school meal reform measure signed into law by President Obama nearly two years ago.
In Jefferson County, T.A. Lowery, Ranson and North Jefferson elementary schools are providing all students — regardless of their family’s household income— with lunches and breakfasts at no cost.
The goal is to ensure that all eligible students have at least two healthy meals every school day, explains Rick Goff, the executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the stateís Department of Education.
“There are no application forms for the student’s family to fill out,” Goff said. “Every student in the entire school who wants breakfast, who wants lunch can get it at no cost.”
The elimination of paperwork on families will inevitably mean more eligible students will have access to free school meals, Goff said. “That will mean more students will have a good, nutritious breakfast at school and a good, nutritious lunch during the school day. And we believe that will translate into students being able to do their best on schoolwork.”
Other students in the Eastern Panhandle also are taking part, including six schools in neighboring Berkeley and three schools in Morgan County. In all, more than 300 schools in high-poverty areas in 34 of West Virginia’s 55 counties are offering the free school-wide meals, according to Goff.
A school’s eligibility is determined by the number of families in its attendance area that get funds through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other help. Federal officials say that by offering free meals school-wide, the government can ìeliminate entirely the cost and burden to schools of collecting and processing applications.”
The program’s called the Community Eligibility Option ñ was first tried during the 2011-12 school year in select schools in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan.
In May, the USDA selected West Virginia, along with the District of Columbia, New York and Ohio for this school year. Federal officials say the option will be offered to schools in all states beginning with the 2014-15 academic year.
By offering free meals school-wide, the government also can help better ensure that low-income young people have the high-nutrition foods that will help them succeed in class, officials say.
Explains Kevin Concannon, an undersecretary with the USDA: “Community eligibility offers innovative strategies to help ensure that children in high-poverty areas have access to the nutrition they need to learn and thrive. We know that if our country is going to win the future, our kids must be healthy and ready to learn so that they can reach their full potential.”
In West Virginia, the expanded eligibility program comes at the same time as an added emphasis on serving salads, fresh fruits and vegetables and more made-from-scratch entrees in school cafeterias.
The healthier push is coming from the top. The tie between students’ nutritional needs and their achievement levels has long been apparent to Jorea Marple, who became state superintendent of schools in 2011 and who served as principal at Tiskelwah Elementary, a school in one of Kanawha Countyís poorest neighborhoods, in the 1990s.
With West Virginia leading the nation in ill health indicators, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Marple has called for the stateís schools to help put students on a healthier path.
“Do we only fix these problems after they happen? Or do we also begin to fix things from the get-go?” she told a writer for ‘The Shape We’re In’ a health series put together earlier this year by The Charleston Gazette.
The Obama administration, too, is working to cut childhood obesity and promote healthy eating and active lifestyles, including through first lady Michelle Obama’s ‘Letís Move!’ initiative.
Health officials have called the changes mandated by the Healthy, Hunger Free-Kids Act ‘the most comprehensive change to food in schools in more than a generation.’
Among the Healthy, Hunger Free-Kids Act changes to be introduced in schools include increased access to drinking water in schools, adding to the number of eligible children who get school meal programs, and having the USDA involved in serving meals in more after-school programs in high-risk areas.