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Senate approves free school meals bill

Mar. 29, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

CHARLESTON -- Legislation designed to improve the nutrition and health of children in West Virginia's public schools by guaranteeing that "nutritious breakfast and lunch" be provided for all elementary and secondary school students received a unanimous vote of approval Friday in the State Senate.

The West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act (SB 663) originated only two days earlier in the Senate's Select Committee on Children and Poverty. Following the 34-0 vote yesterday, the measure now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration during the final two weeks of the 2013 regular legislative session.

"Children in our schools are not getting the nutrition they need," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who is chairman of the new committee created earlier this session. "And if a child is hungry, it's more difficult to learn."

Unger said the program will start in elementary schools and, as funds become available, possibly expand to all students in the public schools.

Not only is he chairman of the Senate Education Committee, but Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, is also a member of the Select Committee on Children and Poverty and is one of 11 senators listed as co-sponsors of this legislation.

"There certainly is a great need to provide nutritious breakfast and lunch to students," Plymale said.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said after Friday's floor session that he believes members of the House of Delegates also will support the legislation, which calls for the state Department of Education and all county school boards to seek private donations to help cover the costs of the program.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, is also one of the co-sponsors of SB 663. He said the funding for this new program will come from private sources and "every penny donated will go to buy food."

If the bill does become law, it would require the Department of Education and each of the 55 county boards of education to establish a nonprofit foundation or fund to provide supplemental or matching funds to increase participation in this new program. Financial support may come from either public or private gifts, grants, contributions, bequests and endowments.

According to a 2011 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, more than 25 percent of the children in West Virginia live in homes with income below the federal poverty line, which is $23,050 for a family of four. And about half of West Virginia's children live in homes where the household income is "below twice the federal poverty level, $46,100 for a family of four," according to the language in the bill.

The latter figure is approximately the level of the Work Force West Virginia self-sufficiency standard.

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