Place at the table: W.Va. aims to feed more students

[cleeng_content id="213111802" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]CHARLES TOWN – Students at three Jefferson County elementary schools will soon have new free breakfast options that officials hope will increase the number of children participating in school breakfasts.

Meanwhile, Ranson, T.A. Lowery and North Jefferson elementary schools will be offering students there the option to obtain a “Grab and Go” breakfast, while students at Wildwood Middle school will have the choice to eat breakfast after first period, rather than having to eat before school starts.

The programs being implemented were created by Senate Bill 663, the Feed to Achieve Act, a bill aimed at providing increased nutritional assistance to the state’s students which was passed during the last legislative session and is set to be fully implemented by 2015.

Kindergartners Dylan Hardy and Eeliyah Terrell line up to get their lunches at Ranson Elementary School Tuesday.

Kindergartners Dylan Hardy and Eeliyah Terrell line up to get their lunches at Ranson Elementary School Tuesday.

Feed to Achieve was authored by Senate Majority Leader John Unger, a Democrat, and was co-sponsored by Minority Leader Mike Hall, a Republican. The measure attained broad bipartisan support, with the Senate voting 99-1 for passage and the House voting 89-9 in favor, with two abstentions.

Arlene Leonard, the county’s child nutrition coordinator, said many of the programs implemented in the bill have already been implemented in some Jefferson County schools.

“Many of our elementary schools have already been doing breakfast in a bag – the ‘Grab and Go’ breakfast,” she said. “We’ve already been doing some of this for several years.”

Leonard said the breakfast participation rate at schools that have implemented the “Grab and Go” program is already very high.

“Their participation has already drastically increased, so their children are pretty much already getting breakfast,” she said.

As a whole, however, Jefferson County has very low participation rates, being ranked 53rd out of the state’s 55 counties in participation for breakfast and 41st for participating in lunch. Leonard said these low rates can be partially explained by the unique economic status of Jefferson County within the state.

“I think it has a large impact on our county that we are more of an urban area and a lot of our students drive their own vehicles when you get to the senior high level,” she said. “I think that has a lot to do with our participation rate. And I do feel that our higher mean income also has a great impact on that.”

Nonetheless, she feels that expanding “Grab and Go” programs will help to improve the county’s breakfast participation. “I hope the participation rate will improve as we implement more ‘Grab and Go’ menu items that are easier for a student to sit down and consume,” she said.

Rick Goff, executive director of the state’s Office of Child Nutrition, which oversees state and federal child nutrition programs, recently concluded a trip to visit several Eastern Panhandle schools where the new law is being implemented. He predicts the Feed to Achieve Act will make a major difference for child hunger, student achievement and student conduct throughout the state.

“The goal of Feed to Achieve is to make sure that all kids get at least two meals a day,” Goff said. “We can’t fix all kids. Some of them come to school emotionally scarred: there are problems at home like domestic violence; they are subjected to a meth lab bust; they don’t have health care; they are running a fever. You can’t control any of that as educators. But if we have breakfast programs and cooks on staff, we can at least feed every child who walks in the door.”

Goff said the impact of a morning meal on student achievement is well supported by both scientific studies and teacher experience.

“Kids who receive school breakfasts tend to score higher on achievement tests. They tend to have fewer behavioral problems, fewer tardies and less absenteeism,” Goff said. “During Westest, every educator I know wants to feed a child breakfast. We need that Westest week sense of urgency every week.”

“This is the first state-level piece of legislation we’ve had in a long, long time, and we’re excited about it,” he said. “Feed to Achieve does a lot of things. The first thing is that it rescinded and replaced a state code that mandated school breakfast.”

Goff says the bill takes steps to address some major shortcomings in the state’s universal school breakfast program.

“We were one of the first states in the nation to require that all public schools offer kids breakfast. So every school in West Virginia offers breakfast, but the problem was when breakfast was being offered,” Goff said. “We had breakfast programs. We had kitchens. We had cooks. We had food. But we weren’t serving kids breakfast.”

For many years, less than a third of the state’s students made use of school breakfast programs and, Goff says, only 60 percent of needy children were participating.

“We weren’t even meeting the needs of our hungriest children,” he said.

Goff said innovative solutions proposed by the bill will help to feed more children.

“Instead of having breakfast at the worst time of day – at the start of school when buses are late and kids are getting dropped off – we have it later in the day after first period, or serve it in the classroom, or have a grab-and-go initiative,” he said. “We distributed $1.1 million in grants to schools last week to put those strategies into place.”

The bulk of Feed to Achieve’s initiatives will be paid for using federal school nutrition dollars, which it hopes to augment by increasing the participation rate of needy children in federally subsidized meal programs.

The Board of Education told the Legislature at the time of the bill’s passage that it would be revenue-neutral, which was a major selling point for state Republicans. Goff said the program is still not expected to require any new funding.

“The cornerstone of what we do is identifying free-status children,” Goff said. “It is important to identify all of them, because that determines the rate at which you can draw federal funds.

“The reason we were able to pass the bill without a fiscal note attached is because, for everything that it tries to do, it does it through an infrastructure that is already in place. We have staff in place. We have funding.”

The bill also authorizes schools to create programs to help feed children after they leave school by sending students home with food after school, establishing summer or holiday feeding programs, and other initiatives.

To pay for such programs, the bill mandates that each county establish a public/private partnership fund to accept private-sector donations. Goff said those programs have all been established but have not been brought into full operation yet. The state plans to work with the IRS to ensure that contributions are tax-deductible, and to establish a marketing campaign.

The state’s school nutrition programs also underwent major changes following the passage of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which established new nutritional guidelines for schools providing federally subsidized meals.

It also established a program – the Community Eligibility Option or CEO – to provide free breakfasts and lunches in schools where a certain percentage of children were homeless or lived in households receiving Temporary Aid for Needy Families or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Ranson, T.A. Lowery and North Jefferson are all participating in the CEO program.

Goff said the CEO program has been a boon for many schools throughout the state.

“There are 340 schools this coming school year that will be feeding all children free breakfast and lunch,” he said.

He said the CEO program helped the state to implement a universal free breakfast and lunch program in seven southern counties of the state, and has helped the state’s breakfast participation rate to climb 8 percent over the last two years.

Over the same period, however, the state’s lunch participation rate fell 5 percent to its lowest rate in a decade, which, he said, is partially attributable to the new federal nutrition requirements.

“The feds … focused on improving the nutritional quality of school lunches by offering more whole grains, more fresh fruits and vegetables and reducing fat,” Goff explained. “One of the requirements with that program was not just to offer more vegetables but to offer certain kinds of vegetables – a certain amount of red or orange vegetables for example.

“This year we saw things like baked sweet potato fries and dark green leafy vegetables – things that hadn’t normally been on menus before,” he said.

On the other hand, Goff said the dip is temporary and that the program will help to combat the state’s dangerous levels of childhood obesity.

“We saw a dip in lunch participation, but it will correct itself,” he said. “If we’re going to change the childhood obesity epidemic, we have to subject children to different, more nutritious foods. They may not like them in the beginning, but they can develop a taste for them.

“You won’t see candy bars or sodas or any unhealthy snacks in our schools,” he said. “I don’t think schools are contributing to childhood obesity in West Virginia. I think it is things that are occurring outside the school in the home.”

Goff says Feed to Achieve will further improve the nutritional quality of food lunches by encouraging schools to work with local farms to purchase produce and by encouraging schools to initiate programs in which they grow some of their own produce.

Implementation of the Feed to Achieve act is still in its early stages throughout the state, so it will take some time before concrete data is available on its performance.

“We’re collecting that data on our own for West Virginia, and we will have a report done by an independent research firm,” Goff said. “That report is forthcoming. It is still a little early to do something like that.”[/cleeng_content]

Share This Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>