West Virginia’s public schools served about 15 million breakfasts to children last school year.
How many more hungry kids can the state’s schools feed without spending any extra state money? The answer, it seems, is a lot.
The Feed to Achieve Act, the 2013 law that aims to revamp how breakfast is served in West Virginia schools, doesn’t go into full effect until September, but that hasn’t stopped most counties from making the changes the law will require. And they’re already seeing results.
The law has two main provisions: One aims to harness more federal dollars and the other will attempt to solicit private donations.
The law, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, requires all schools to change how they serve breakfast, to make it easier for students to eat at school.
“Breakfast, if you tie it to academic achievement, you get reduced tardies, reduced behavioral problems,” said Rick Goff, director of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition. “But it’s typically offered at the worst possible time of the day. The kids are arriving, the bells ringing, the buses are late, they want to talk to their friends, they’re hungry, but they just don’t have the time.”
So the law recommends three ways to serve breakfast. The most popular is “grab and go,” where students can grab a bagel or a bowl of cereal at the cafeteria and then take it with them to their classroom. Schools also can serve breakfast in classrooms or after first period — when the initial hubbub of arrival has died down.
More than 75 percent of West Virginia’s schools — 518 to be exact — already have implemented one of these breakfast programs, in anticipation of the coming September requirement.
The Office of Child Nutrition has spent about $1 million this year from its general budget on things like training and coolers, to get the programs off the ground.
The changes began in 2011, with an eight-county pilot project to tinker with how breakfast is delivered in schools.
For years, the number of kids eating breakfast in West Virginia schools had remained virtually flat, barely fluctuating between 28 percent and 30 percent of students. After the pilot project, though, the numbers shot up. In the 2012 school year, 36 percent of students ate breakfast in schools. This year, so far, more than 41 percent are eating breakfast in schools.
“We’ve tried for 10 years to get a percentage-point increase in breakfast,” Goff said, “and now we’ve jumped at least 10 percent.”
School breakfast and lunch programs are funded by the federal government, so the state can serve all those extra meals without spending any extra money.
The federal government reimburses schools for every meal served. Depending on the income level of individual students and entire schools, those reimbursement rates range from 28 cents per meal up to $3.10 per meal.
Every meal not served can be viewed as federal money left on the table. To that end, the law strives to “access all available federal funds to support our school nutrition programs.”
Counties that have begun to do that are seeing results, while others are not.
Mason County and Wood County are about 30 miles apart in Northwest West Virginia.
Wood County is much bigger — about three times the population — but economically, the counties are quite similar.
About 22 percent of kids in Mason County live below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data. In Wood County, it’s 23 percent.
About 13 percent of Mason County residents don’t have health insurance, according to Census data. In Wood County, it’s 14 percent.
The median per capita income in Mason County is about $19,000, according to Census data. In Wood County, it’s about $23,000.
However, nearly 80 percent of kids in Mason County eat breakfast at school, the highest rate of any county in West Virginia. At the other extreme, less than 20 percent of Wood County students eat breakfast at school, the lowest rate.
It’s not hard to see why. Every one of the 10 public schools in Mason County already uses some sort of innovative breakfast program. In Wood County, 26 of the 27 schools have made no changes in how they serve breakfast.
Some schools in Mason County serve breakfast in the classroom, while some use the “grab and go” method, depending on what suits each school best, said Cristi Rulen, food services director for the county.
Rulen said the school district hasn’t done anything exceptional to feed so many kids.
“We just have good support from our staff and our superintendent, and the idea that breakfast is an important part of the day,” she said.
The second part of the Feed to Achieve Act attempts to feed more children by using private money.
The Office of Child Nutrition has worked with school boards to set up 56 funds — one for each county and one for the entire state — that can collect tax-exempt donations to help feed more students or improve the quality of meals served.
The office has hired a grant writer to pitch to large companies — Goff specifically mentioned Wal-Mart — on donating to Feed to Achieve. A marketing push and kickoff event are planned for September.
“Right now, if you say ‘Feed to Achieve’ in West Virginia, no one knows what that means,” Goff said. “If you say ‘Jerry Lewis Telethon,’ everybody knows what that means. My goal is to make Feed to Achieve as popular as those other charitable events.”
Goff said his office will use the donations to focus on getting kids fed when they’re most at risk of going hungry — when they’re not at school.
“We know that when they’re in our care, they have access to two nutritious meals a day,” Goff said. “Where they’re at risk is when they’re not in our care — weekends, spring break, the summer months.”
He said that when schools in nine counties surrounding Charleston had to close in January because of a chemical leak into the potable water system, the West Virginia lost $1.5 million in federal funds because of all the meals it couldn’t serve.
“Everybody was so worried about losing instructional time; in our world that’s secondary to lost nutrition,” Goff said. “We had parents calling in saying, ‘Can you open the schools? I’ve got four kids at home and we’ve got nothing to eat.’ ”
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com or 304-348-5119.