Older students at Kermit K-8 who used to skip breakfast to socialize before school now eat in high numbers in "grab'n'go" style after first period. They choose from a main offering of cheese toast, fruit, cereal, yogurt and milk.
See also: The research: Regular breakfast helps you lose weight, concentrate
KERMIT, W.Va. -- On a chilly morning, at 8:20 a.m., coal trucks rumbled past Mingo County's Kermit K-8 School. Inside, a cook was starting to sear 60 pounds of beef for homemade beef stew for lunch. Another was stirring cornbread batter for 342 kids. A third was starting crust for enormous berry cobblers.
"We're cooking for a lot more kids this year," said veteran head cook Lena Lackey. They're also making food from scratch, five days a week. Yes, she said, it's more work than heat-and-serve, "but it's the only solid meals some of our kids get."
At 8:35 a.m., the seventh and eighth-graders came rolling through the cafeteria line, laughing and jostling, sticking breakfast items in paper bags -- yogurt, oranges or apples, cereal, milk, cheese bread. Not a Pop-tart or doughnut in sight.
The kindergartners ate in the cafeteria. The seventh and eighth-graders took their sacks back to their classrooms, "grab-n-go" style.
"A lot more kids eat, now that we've moved breakfast up to after first period," said Principal Dora Chaffin. "When we served it before school, a lot skipped it because they like to socialize then."
Nationwide, schools with free breakfast for all report greater attention in class, fewer discipline problems, and fewer absent or tardy children.
People who eat a regular, healthy breakfast tend to concentrate better and are less likely to be obese, research shows, partly because they don't overeat as much later.
Mingo County schools are pushing hard to improve school food and, especially, to get more kids eating breakfast because: Seventy percent of Mingo children qualify for free or reduced lunch.
In 2009-10, West Virginia University found that 28 percent of Mingo fifth-graders have high blood pressure and 36 percent -- more than one in three -- are obese.
There is not one grocery store in the entire county.
One in five West Virginia homes sometimes didn't have enough food in 2011, according to a new report from the Food Research & Action Center study.
Down the hall, breakfast was being delivered to the fifth-grade classroom. Aides rolled a cart into the classroom, packed with breakfast choices.
All the children ate. A visitor asked, "How many of you would not have eaten breakfast if you weren't eating at school?" All but two raised their hands.
"The kids are focusing a lot better during lessons since this started," their teacher, Annette Martin, said. "They aren't sitting there thinking about being hungry."
More meals, more money
In August, state Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple challenged all school systems to try at least one new way to get more kids to eat school breakfast. Forty-five counties pledged to try. "It just makes sense," Marple said.
Mingo County and six other counties are also serving every child free this year as part of a statewide demonstration project. They are trying to cook less fattening meals five days a week from fresh ingredients.
"In the coalfields, it's not always possible to get all the fresh ingredients," Maynard said, "but we're managing to have fresh fruits and vegetables every day."
The percent of Mingo students eating breakfast has soared from 36 percent to 78 percent, compared with 2010, a 118 percent increase. Lunch eaters have jumped from 68 percent to 75 percent.
How do they pay for it? The federal government reimburses the county $2.51 for lunch if a child is eligible for free meals, $2.11 for reduced-price meals, and 28 cents for the other lunches served. The more money that comes in from the federal government, the less the county has to pay.
In the first four months, Mingo County brought in $186,000 extra federal dollars. "That balances the loss of paying children and the extra cost of the food," Maynard said.
"Most West Virginia counties can make universal breakfast break even," said Rick Goff, director of the state Office of Child Nutrition.
'We were all on board'
Before making the meal changes, Mingo Superintendent Randy Keathley, a Williamson native, proposed them to principals and teachers. He asked them "to reflect on the fact that, if you have hungry children in the classroom starting the day, you're more apt to have kids who are disengaged, sleepy, hungry, irritable and so forth.
"I wanted to talk it over with them first. If they were not receptive, I would not have wanted to try to force it on them. They had to support the benefit to the children, for this to work.
"We discussed all the possible complications. And when we finished, 100 percent of the participants had bought in."
They wanted the afternoon snack program, too, he said. Every afternoon, all Mingo elementary and middle-grade children get a snack through the federally-funded Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program.
"The kids love it," Maynard said. "Sometimes they are things they've never seen, like star fruit and red bananas. The USDA sends information, so each day is a little nutrition lesson, too.
"I can definitely tell you that the snack makes them much more willing to try fruits and vegetables at lunch and breakfast," she said.
Subhed: Learning to like brown bread
In October, Kermit kindergartners filed through the breakfast line, picking up items. A teacher stood at the end of the line, encouraging them to try new things, offering fruit, apples and oranges.
At the tables, most ate the fruit. Many did not eat the "brown bread," whole wheat bread. They ate the cheese off the cheese toast. "We've got white bread at home," one child said disdainfully.
The child sitting next to her said, "I think brown bread is good."
The first child looked at the brown bread, picked it up and took a bite.
Five months later, "a lot of them eat the wheat bread," Chaffin said. "Over time, they got used to it. The fourth grade did a survey, and the kids said the food tastes better.
"We used to have a parade of parents coming in at lunch bringing the kids sandwiches from Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen," she said. "They don't come anymore.
"We want to educate these children to live a healthy lifestyle, not just teach them math and reading. I think we're making a little progress."
Reach Kate Long at email@example.com or 304-348-1798.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.