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I’ve spent some time over the past seven or eight years working on child nutrition issues, which has a certain amount of irony. After all, the organization I work for, the American Friends Service Committee, first came to West Virginia in 1922, in large part to work on child nutrition issues.

How sad is it that it’s still an issue 99 years later?

It’s an unfortunate truth that, today, a lot of kids rely heavily on schools for meeting their nutritional needs, up to and including volunteer weekend backpack programs.

I first got involved in the issue in 2013, when the state Legislature passed the Feed to Achieve Act, which was intended to eventually provide free breakfast and lunch for all public school students.

One way that would work was by encouraging more counties to implement the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which allows them to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40% or more are identified as being low income. Basically, it eliminates the application process for free and reduced meals.

It’s a winner all round. More kids eat healthy meals, which can help with learning, discipline, tardiness and attendance. Schools cut paperwork and often save money. Any stigma for being on free or reduced meals is gone. And working parents get a break.

Most counties jumped on board as soon as the program became available, and others followed suit through the years. Some took some nudging, sometimes for years. But now, 54 out of 55 counties have implemented the program, to a degree, and 47 have done so on a countywide basis (Monongalia County is, surprisingly, the only county not to have implemented it at any school).

Often, a county would try CEP at a few schools, and then expand it after seeing the benefits. And the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition has done a great job in helping to make all this happen.

Enter COVID-19. Last spring, the USDA provided pandemic electronic benefit cards (P-EBTs) worth $313.50 per child to all students, to help cover out-of-school food costs. In schools with CEP, all children get the benefits; in those without, only those on free or reduced lunch qualify. Many benefited, but some missed out.

This is where child nutrition translates into direct economic impact. That round of P-EBTs brought about $72 million to local economies in the midst of a pandemic-induced recession, supporting local businesses and jobs at a critical time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that each dollar spent on EBT food assistance has a multiplier effect of $1.5, which would increase the economic boost to $108 million.

The USDA recently announced a second round of P-EBT cards to be issued next month. This time around, eligibility also will be extended to some children in child care settings. The benefit will amount to $6.82 per day for days out of school in the 2020-21 school year. That means somebody’s going to have to do some arithmetic, and the amount might vary from child to child, depending on the number of in-school days.

It’s been estimated that this will bring $200 million to the state. With the multiplier, that means $300 million in much-needed economic activity.

This also is good news for West Virginia farmers and the farmers markets participating in the SNAP Stretch program, which doubles or triples the purchasing power of SNAP and P-EBT cards. SNAP Stretch received additional funding from the Justice administration via, the federal CARES Act.

That’s a major silver lining in the midst of the pandemic.

Still, more needs to be done to improve child nutrition, such as encouraging the expansion of CEP where it has yet to be implemented. And we need to revisit legislation that died the past two years that would require counties to come up with out-of-school food plans for emergencies and summer vacations.

Last year, the bill died just as the pandemic began to hit. One would hope that the need for such legislation would be self-evident this year.

Rick Wilson works for the American Friends Service Committee and is a Gazette-Mail contributing columnist.