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Editorial: Free meals laudable if money's found

Mar. 30, 2013 @ 10:40 PM

A bill making its way through the West Virginia Legislature sets out an ambitious goal -- providing free breakfast and lunch to every elementary school student in the state starting in the fall of 2015.

On the face of it, the undertaking seems worthwhile. But the key question is whether the plan can be made to work as its originators hope from a dollars standpoint.

The legislation is called the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act. If enacted, it would make the state the first in the nation to implement such an ambitious plan. It would pay for expanded lunch programs through additional federal subsidies allocated on the basis of meals served plus private donations and grants. It calls for the state's Department of Education and every county board of education to establish nonprofit funds to collect contributions, and no additional state funding would be involved. All contributions would be used to buy food only.

The impetus, according to lawmakers, is to keep children from going hungry, at least during school days, with the hope that students can more readily focus on learning. Another part of the thinking is that allowing all students to eat for free will eliminate the stigma that officials say is associated with students who already receive free or reduced-price meals based on family income levels. They note that 53 percent of West Virginia students already qualify for free or discounted meals, but only 36 percent of students participated in the breakfast program last year. They attribute that disparity in part to families wanting to avoid the stigma associated with what one expert described as "welfare food."

The bill also aims to increase participation in the breakfast program by making it easier for students to have breakfast by allowing them to eat in the classroom or after first period.

"If the money's there and the food is there, you ought to feed the child," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, the bill's lead sponsor.

The question is whether the money will be there.

The federal government reimburses the state for every meal served in schools, but the level of reimbursement varies depending on the income of the student's parents. The state receives about $3 per meal for students who qualify for free lunch and about $2.50 for reduced price lunches, but only 30 cents for students who do not qualify for reduced prices.

While the bill estimates that increased participation could bring in nearly $13 million in additional federal funds, the meal subsidy for students who don't qualify for reduced prices is meager. That will leave a healthy cost to be filled by federal grants and donations.

As of now, big contributors to fill that gap have not been identified, although some business groups have said their members would be eager to participate. But will that be enough?

Rhonda McCoy, Cabell County Schools' food services director, pointed out that poorer counties without a solid business base could have a difficult time finding enough contributions to cover the higher costs, and she wondered whether donations to the Department of Education's nonprofit fund would be enough to fill such funding holes around the state.

That's a good question, one that should be answered with a definitive "Yes" before this plan -- if signed into law -- is enacted.

A key part of this bill is that no state taxpayers' money be used to make it happen. The state's taxpayers should not be required to provide free meals to students whose families can afford to pay themselves. If there is no reasonable assurance that can be avoided, then officials will need to rethink how they can improve the participation rates of students who do qualify for the free or reduced meals.

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