When the area’s public schools closed for a record amount of time this winter due to a combination of dangerously cold temperatures and the Freedom Industries chemical leak, Rick Goff realized the importance of a healthy school lunch for some students.
“Although a lot of kids enjoyed that, I received several calls to my office that went something like this, ‘Can you guys open school today? I have four kids at home and they have nothing to eat.’ And that’s when you realize how important these programs are,” said Goff, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition. “When you get those calls you realize that hunger is still alive in West Virginia ... and that just drove the point home for me about the importance of what we’re doing.”
Goff and state officials met with children at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Charleston on Wednesday to kick off the state’s Summer Food Service Program, a federally funded program that ensures students living in low-income areas receive free, nutritious meals during the summer.
In West Virginia, the program is especially important. Nearly 180,000 school children on average depend on free and reduced-price meals at school each year — more than 60 percent of the state’s total public school student body.
More than 400 sites across the state will continue to provide those free meals to children under 18 this summer, including in rural areas.
“When school’s out, hunger doesn’t take a summer vacation,” Goff said.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday recognized the dozens of community partners that help with the program, including the Partnership of African American Churches, and said the state has already made great strides in combating child hunger and is seeing early positive results.
Tomblin signed in the Feed To Achieve Act last year, which aims to provide free, nutritious breakfast and lunch for all public school students by the fall of 2015 — regardless of income.
The nutritious aspect of the program is just as important as any other, Tomblin said.
“Obviously we do have a problem with our children with obesity sometimes, but the food that they get through these programs are healthy foods and I certainly do appreciate that. Research shows that students are more able to focus and learn better. Their test scores are higher and student absences and tardies have declined,” Tomblin said. “This early success in school is critical to ensure the success of our children later in life as part of West Virginia’s future workforce.”
Diana Limbacher, deputy regional administrator for the USDA, said Wednesday West Virginia is held up as an example for other states when it comes to fighting child hunger.
“West Virginia is leading the country in feeding children, not just during the summer months, but all year round,” Limbacher said. “We wish all of our agencies were like West Virginia.”
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-348-4814.