School meal bill advances in House

CHARLESTON – A move to expand universal access to breakfast and lunch for elementary students came that much closer to being law after the House Education Committee recommended the measure in a unanimous vote Tuesday.

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The West Virginia Feed to Achieve act, as the landmark piece of legislation is called, was drafted by the Joint Select Committee on Children and Poverty, established by Sen. Majority Leader John Unger.

The Senate voted unanimously in support of the bill two weeks ago. The bill moves next to the House floor.

Mollie Wood, assistant director of the Office of Child Nutrition, said the bill makes West Virginia a model for the nation.

“We don’t (ask parents to) pay for kids to get on busses, and we don’t (ask parents to) pay for kids to buy textbooks,” Wood said. “I think feeding is a basic need, and I think children should have the opportunity to have breakfast when they are at school, just like they have the opportunity to have textbooks. Nobody else is doing what we are doing right now in this legislation.”

During the committee meeting, Delegate Paul Espinosa said he was concerned about the bill’s fiscal impact and the evidence for its effectiveness.

“When this proposal was first reported in the media … the first comments that I received didn’t question the need to provide nutrition for those students who are in need of it, but questioned why it was needed for those students whose parents can clearly afford to pay for those meals,” Espinosa said, adding he worried that it could drain resources from other programs – many of which are on the chopping block in this year’s constrained budget.

West Virginia Schools Superintendent James Phares promised the committee the bill would have no impact on the state’s budget. “This bill is revenue-neutral,” he said, adding that public-private partnerships and federal funds would be used to cover the program’s costs.

“We saw on a local level in Randolph County that Elkins Middle School had a drastic increase in breakfasts. What that caused us to do is get additional cooks, because we had additional meals. It is virtually – right now, through half the year – revenue-neutral,” he said.

Wood said analysis done by Office of Child Nutrition Director Richard Goff indicates that the state could capture an additional $12 million in federal nutrition subsidies by encouraging eligible children to participate in the program.

She noted that, in some counties, upwards of 80 percent of children are eligible, though often a much smaller percentage actually sign up for the program. “A county that has 80 or 85 (percent) participation is drawing down a lot of federal dollars.”

In an interview, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence noted that some schoolchildren who qualify don’t participate in reduced meals programs because their parents are too proud to enroll them.

“There are usually about 20 percent (of qualified children) who do not participate in the program,” Lawrence said.

Phares said schools that had made efforts to increase the participation rate had consistently been able to push it up by around 10 percent.

Espinosa also said he worried the program could be a drain on the charitable contributions given to other causes, an outcome that Phares said is possible.

Counties, or small groups of counties, will be able to establish public-private partnerships of their own under the provisions of the bill. Further, a state-level foundation – that legislators hope will attract large corporate donations – will act as a “safety net” to aid counties that have difficulty attracting sufficient donations.

Espinosa asked whether the results of the Community Eligibility Opportunity program had yet been measured. The CEO program is a federal universal feeding pilot project implemented at Ranson, North Jefferson and T.A. Lowery Elementary Schools.

Wood said that the CEO program had only been implemented this year, and it was too early to measure its effects. She did, however, point to anecdotal evidence related by principals indicating positive signs.

“Since that program is still a pilot, we haven’t gotten any results in to confirm the impact,” Espinosa noted, asking whether it was premature to develop a statewide program at the current time.

“There is research from the Food Research and Action Center, and all of the national research is highly indicative that this program does increase standardized test scores, decrease tardies, decrease absenteeism and decrease behavioral problems., Wood said.”

Summers County Republican Roy Cooper said it was wrong for the committee to focus on parent accountability when it comes to school nutrition.

“We can sit here and blame some parents because they don’t feed their children, but we are not the committee to do that. We are the committee to look after these kids, and I think we should vote for this bill,” Cooper said.

Lawrence there is an alarming rise in student poverty throughout the state, including in Jefferson County.

The most recent figures for homelessness among Jefferson County School students, she said, have 438 moving from house to house regularly, one living in a hotel or motel, two as “unaccompanied youths,” 75 in shelters, eight living in a car, campground or abandoned building.

Lawrence noted, though Jefferson County is a very wealthy county compared to other areas of the state, more than 38 percent of students still qualify for federally subsidized school lunches.

“The average cost of housing in Jefferson County is $220,000, yet we have 38 percent of kids qualifying for free or reduced lunches. That pretty much paints the picture,” she said. “From a global perspective, you would expect that everyone was higher or middle income, but that really isn’t the case.”

Lawrence said the increase has been driven primarily by the ongoing economic malaise that has gripped the nation over the last half-decade.

“With the economy the way it is, we have seen these numbers go up and up and up,” she said.[/cleeng_content]

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