CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers unveiled a plan Wednesday to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students who attend public schools.
The Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty originated a bill (SB663) that would allow the state Department of Education and county school boards to set up nonprofit foundations that would raise money to help fund the free breakfast and lunch programs. The full Senate is expected to take a final vote on the bill Friday.
"I think this will prove to be one of the most important pieces of legislation that comes out this year," said Bob Brown, an American Federation of Teachers lobbyist. "Hungry children don't learn as well as other children. They simply don't."
The legislation -- titled the "Feed to Achieve Act" -- would boost the number of children who take part in the state's school breakfast and lunch program. Now, only low-income students get free and discounted meals at school.
"This bill will send out a call that no child will go hungry," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley.
Education officials said about 55 percent of West Virginia students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, but only about one of every three students statewide takes part in the school breakfast program.
The bill requires schools to develop ways to increase the number of students who receive free meals. With more students participating, federal funding to the state would increase, the bill's supporters say. The federal government reimburses the state for every meal served.
State education officials said students often don't eat breakfast at school because the meal is typically served before the school day starts. The bill allows schools to offer "grab-and-go" breakfasts. Students also could eat breakfast in classrooms, and after their first-period class.
The nonprofit foundations established under the bill must use donations strictly to fund meals. None of the money could be spent on administrative or personnel costs.
County school boards would establish "public/private partnerships" to provide free meals for all students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Businesses and individuals would donate money to support the universal free-meal program.
State school board President Wade Linger, who owns a Fairmont-based technology company, predicted that businesses would embrace the Feed to Achieve program.
"It gives businesses an opportunity to actively participate in the process," Linger said.
The new program would start in elementary schools, then expand to middle and high schools as additional funds from the nonprofit foundations become available. The program would take effect in fall 2015.
"This is definitely a game-changer for the children of West Virginia," said Rick Goff, executive director of the Department of Education's Office of Child Nutrition. "West Virginia is taking a huge step forward."
The Department of Education would collaborate with other state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Agriculture.
"We recognized proper nutrition is a key to a successful child," said DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo.
State schools Superintendent Jim Phares said the free breakfast and lunch bill would help bolster Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform legislation, which received final approval last week.
"This bill is absolutely essential to complement the governor's bill, if we want to improve student achievement in West Virginia," Phares said.
Phares, former Randolph County superintendent, said last year's storms -- the June derecho and Superstorm Sandy -- spotlighted the critical need for expanded school meal programs. Fallen trees blocked roads, and families couldn't get to stores to buy food in rural communities.
"We had folks who were starving in Randolph County, mostly children," Phares recalled. "We knew it was critical to get kids back in school, because they weren't eating."
Sen. Ron Stollings, a Boone County doctor, said he's frustrated that the state has established programs to combat hunger in the past and that problems persist.
"We're doing a fair amount of stuff, but our kids are going hungry," Stollings said. "It breaks my heart."
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