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State targets academics with nutrition

Nutrition
May. 12, 2013 @ 10:20 PM

CHARLESTON -- Students should notice West Virginia's ambitious new plan to target child hunger while improving academic performance when they arrive this fall.

Expanding access to breakfast is likely the first component of the Feed to Achieve Act that will emerge following its signing by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin earlier this month, said Richard Goff, executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the state Department of Education.

"The game changer for our program and for the kids in West Virginia is the breakfast delivery strategy," said Goff, a 23-year veteran of the department. "For the first time in my tenure, it makes the meal program part of the educational day. It's not an interruption. That's where we'll see the big change."

A nearly unanimous Legislature passed the new law this session. It aims to provide free, nutritious breakfast and lunch for all public school students, from prekindergarten through 12th grade. The measure cited research that links healthy eating to improved student attendance, attentiveness, behavior, test scores and overall achievement.

The legislative debate surrounding Feed to Achieve included anecdotes about children showing up to class hungry from school officials and lawmakers, some of whom were those students growing up. Goff said he routinely fields phone calls on the topic during the week students statewide take the annual standardized test.

"There is this sense of urgency regarding school meals," Goff said. "Why is that sense of urgency not present every week of the school year? It's important every day."

Supporters consider West Virginia's approach innovative, though the underlying problem is also being tackled elsewhere. The Ending Child Hunger in Alabama campaign, for instance, includes schools in its game plan and launched late last month. Nearly 300 public schools in Los Angeles, meanwhile, provide breakfast that students can take to class. But some teachers there have complained that the program eats into instruction time and that food left in classrooms attracts bugs and rodents, according to the union that represents them.

"That's disturbing to me. They have a problem in California," Goff said. "We don't have that in West Virginia. We have yet to receive any complaints like that."

All West Virginia schools provide breakfast, Goff said. Several also offer breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go meals for tardy students and breakfast after first period. Goff is upbeat about Feed to Achieve because it builds on those and other programs already offering meals to students, he said. More than 280 schools in 35 counties already offer free breakfast and lunch, for example, because their communities qualify for federal subsidies, Goff said.

"It does not place a huge burden on the school systems," Goff said. "All it does is support, supplement and promote child nutrition programs that are already in place in West Virginia."

Feed to Achieve has its hurdles. Both Goff's department and each of the 55 county school districts must set up a special fund to attract and spend private donations.

The goal is to fund additional or expanded programs. Goff cited how just over a third of students eat breakfast at school, though around 59 percent can receive free or reduced-price meals because of their household's income, Goff said. The lunch participation rate is nearly 65 percent.

A learning curve also accompanies the new law. Goff plans to train his staff and then brief each county's food service director. That's also an opportunity to dispel misgivings about the new law, he said. Feed to Achieve does not require counties to solicit donation, nor does it require children to eat at school, Goff said.

"We're not going to force-feed kids. That's ridiculous," Goff said. "If a family elects to have breakfast at home, that's what they'll do. The key words are availability and access."

The West Virginia School Board Association plans to review Feed to Achieve and other legislation passed this session at a June 8 meeting, Executive Director Howard O'Cull said Friday. O'Cull also said he has yet to field any comments from county officials about that new law.

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Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina

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