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Over the last few years, West Virginia has made major progress in school-based child nutrition, thanks to the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, West Virginia’s 2013 Feed to Achieve Act and the wise decisions of nearly all county school boards.

The main reason for that is something called the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows school boards to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of students are certified as being low income. Nearly every county (with the notable exception of Putnam) participates in the program in some or all schools.

It’s a winner all around. It improves nutrition, learning and discipline; gives working parents a break; and cuts down on paperwork and other costs for schools.

Child nutrition is one of the few areas where West Virginia is something of a national leader. According to the Food Research and Action Center, West Virginia led the nation in school breakfast participation for the fifth consecutive year.

When the ranking was announced in February, state schools Superintendent Steven Payne said, “We know that hungry children cannot learn and when we meet the nutritional needs of our students, student achievement increases and classroom disruptions decrease ... I am proud of the work our schools do every day to meet the needs of their students.”

He’s not making that up. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research shows that access to nutritional meals improves learning.

Unfortunately, some of that progress could be undone due to collateral damage caused by the Trump administration’s efforts to change eligibility for SNAP (formerly food stamp) food assistance, a move that could cut over 3 million Americans off that program. The proposed rule change is an end run around the will of Congress, which declined to enact such measures when the massive Farm Bill was reauthorized in 2018.

The deadline for public comments on the proposed eligibility changes ended in late September. According to The New York Times, the USDA got buried by over 75,000 comments, the vast majority of which opposed the changes. That number included 70 comments from mayors, 17 from governors and at least three from state congressional delegations.

So what does SNAP have to do with feeding kids in school? It works like this: Changing eligibility for SNAP will also change it for kids who receive free school breakfasts and lunches. FRAC estimates that these changes, if enacted, would cause 500,000 kids to lose eligibility.

In other words, the rule change would cut kids — and some entire schools — off by changing the way kids are certified.

I think that American Federation of Teachers (AFT President Randi Weingarten nailed it when she said, “In the richest country in the world, no child should be denied access to lunch at school because of their parents’ income level or a cruel attempt by the Trump administration to cut food benefit programs for needy kids.”

She also said, “Hungry children cannot focus on learning. Instead of shaming them, we should be investing in programs that support them and help them feel safe and welcome at school: nutrition programs that promote healthy habits and nurture families facing food scarcity, affordable breakfast and lunch for any kid who needs it, and other community and school supports that build students up, not tear them down.”

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

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