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Cabell education officials not keen on free lunch legislation

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 12:12 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The House of Delegates will vote Friday on the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act, a bill that would mandate that the state Department of Education and county boards of education create nonprofit foundations and solicit donations to help pay for food. The bill's primary intent, though, is to create a system in which students each breakfast and lunch for free.

Other than a two minor amendments in the House Education Committee, the bill has moved smoothly since being introduced in the Senate a few weeks ago by Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

The bill sounds noble, but officials with Cabell County Schools have some serious concerns with the financial impact on food service budgets. Treasurer Jody Lucas and Food Service Director Rhonda McCoy said those students whose families pay for meals account for about $1.1 million of the department's $8.7 million budget. And that helps with the $4.2 million in labor costs within the department.

"It's hard to talk against feeding children for free, but I'm not sure this is the best way to do it," said Mike O'Dell, the assistant superintendent for Operations, who oversees Food Service.

Lucas said the county receives about $4.2 million from the federal government in meal reimbursements for students who qualify for free or reduced meals -- ranging from $1.55 to $1.85 per meal.

For students who pay, the cost is $1.35 for breakfast, $1.75 for lunch in the elementary and middle schools, and $2 for lunch in the high schools. The county receives a 27-cent reimbursement from the federal government for each of those meals.

Although the Feed to Achieve Act doesn't mandate that every student eat for free, that is the ultimate goal, as the bill cites the importance of healthy breakfasts and lunches for a child.

The bill asks school systems to consider reducing or eliminating the cost to students if sufficient funds become available in the foundation accounts that would accept donations from entities and individuals in both the private and public sectors. It also stipulates the free meal initiative would be phased in first for all elementary schools as sufficient funds become available.

O'Dell and Lucas said that concerns them in that there is no assurance of donations on a year-to-year basis that would guarantee continuation of free meals each year.

And, they also said there are major expenses in setting up and maintaining a foundation, including fundraising and auditing.

The bill puts a timeline of no later than the 2015-2016 school year for adopting a delivery system that is approved by the Office of Child Nutrition, that ensures every student is given adequate opportunity to each breakfast, something Cabell County already does.

They also expressed concern with personnel costs. This year, the county is utilizing the new federal Community Eligibility Option that allows students to eat free at 15 elementary and middle schools based on food stamp benefit data.

Those schools, O'Dell said, have seen an uptick in student participation. That has resulted in adding full- or part-time cooks and purchasing additional food to meet the demand.

Feed to Achieve states that county boards of education can utilize the nonprofit funds or foundations "to offset the costs of providing free meals, after school and summer nutrition programs to elementary students."

But a few sections later, the bill states the funds raised or donated for the foundation must be used for food costs only.

Superintendent William Smith said if the bill passes, it needs further legislative interpretation. However, he said he would rather see the bill voted down and studied further.

"If there is a bill that needs studied, it's this one," Smith said. "It's wrought with problems ... and the collateral damage may be heavy."

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, who was one of several sponsors of the bill, said those may be legitimate concerns that need to be considered.

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