CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some West Virginia students will see the Feed to Achieve Act in action when they return to school after summer break and reach for breakfast.By the end of the month, $1.1 million in grants will have been distributed to all of the state's school districts to help roll out alternative breakfast strategies, which is the first phase of the statewide childhood hunger law passed in April."I think we're the only state that has state law that mandates breakfast, which is one of the best things to get on a nutrition program in decades," said Rick Goff, executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the state Department of Education.The Feed To Achieve Act aims to provide free, nutritious breakfast and lunch for all public school students by the fall of 2015.
But there are still misconceptions about the law, Goff said. The bill was designed to essentially act as an extension of meal-access programs many schools across the state already use, with nearly 60 percent of West Virginia students qualifying for free- and reduced-priced meals.A new delivery strategy for breakfast is the act's first required provision. It urges schools to provide meals in a different way, whether that means providing grab-and-go meals for tardy students or serving breakfast in the classroom.Twenty-one of the state's 55 counties have already started implementing some sort of alternative breakfast strategy in all of their schools, in hopes of better test scores and fewer bellyaches.Others have decided to not implement the new system until its 2015 deadline, Goff said.Feed To Achieve funds have already been established in all counties, which will act as public/private partnerships that will allow contributions toward free meals for students, Goff said, but building a universal free-meal program is more complicated."The misconception is that it's going to feed everyone for free. That's not the case. But, it is the goal. What you're able to do is dependent on how much funding you have," he said. "We have to be very cognizant of the fact that if we collect private-sector funds, we need to be careful not to implement programs that aren't sustainable."For example, Goff said, if an individual or a company donated $10,000 to a school district, it's unlikely a universal feeding program could be maintained, but the funding could be used to purchase food to send home or used for transportation costs to get students to feeding sites.Goff, who has worked for the Department of Education for 23 years, said the Feed to Achieve regulations are a work in progress, and will be for the next few years. That's the problem with an unprecedented move like this one."When you have an initiative that's this progressive -- that's never really been done -- you don't know what to expect. You don't know what you don't know," he said. "People ask me do I think it will fail. I don't know what to think, but I know one thing: it's not going to fail because we didn't try."More than 330 schools in 38 counties already offer free breakfast and lunch under the Community Eligibility Option (CEO), which allows schools to provide all of their students free meals if at least 40 percent of the student body is eligible.While CEO, a program being implemented in only three other states in the country, is separate from Feed to Achieve, the results are telling, Goff said.
The state has 52 counties with at least one CEO eligible school, yet 14 counties have resisted the program altogether.That's because there's a fear that CEO could cost counties additional funding, which is true if the program is not implemented properly. But some school systems -- like Cabell County -- have already broke even and brought in additional funding through the program, he said.Goff said Feed to Achieve does not place a burden on the school systems, and is hoping for more open minds than in the past."It's frustrating. Sometimes school administrators aren't supporting it like they should," he said. "We've been methodical in our approach as to how to do this. It's so new, and we're trying to do it all in conjunction with all of these other federal nutrition programs. At some point, we will move into a marketing advertising phase, but we're not there yet."The goal for the new meal plan is not only to combat childhood hunger in the state, but to improve student attendance, attentiveness and overall achievement.In Kanawha County, where 58 of its 68 schools have already implemented the CEO option, more and more schools are moving toward new breakfast strategies and are hopeful for what Feed to Achieve can mean for students.
"We're basically creating an atmosphere that's conducive to learning and eating. I've seen an explosion of participation since breakfast was moved into the classroom. Students love it," said Diane Miller, the county's executive director for food and nutrition. "It's not a disruption like some teachers might think. Students might learn better if they're not hungry."Miller said that while she can't speak for other counties, any extra work that comes with the new law is worth it to Kanawha County Schools to provide more for needy students."Some feel it's an aggressive approach, but in Kanawha County, we took the aggressive approach in order to allow healthier eating and enable all children, regardless of socioeconomic status, to eat," she said.Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.