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Program aims to feed students

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The little girl wanted a longer recess, but the little boy wanted an extra lunch. What they got was a new law aimed at helping children across the state.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, was visiting Berkeley Heights Elementary School one day in 2012, explaining to the students his job as a senator and the legislative process.

They were getting bored, so Unger got a little interactive.

"I said all of you today are state senators," Unger said.

"They were all excited. And I said we're going to make a law together. I said OK if you could change one thing in this school, what would you change? Hands went up and I called on a little girl and she called out 'I'd have a longer recess.' So I wrote on a sheet of paper longer recess and held it up and said, 'This is called a bill.' "If you could change another thing in this school, what would it be?" Unger again asked the third-graders. "One hand went up, and a little boy said 'I'd have an extra lunch.' " Unger said the students debated the two "bills" for some time, going back and forth on the merits of increased playtime or extra lunch. One student raised his hand and said he supported the longer lunch.

"He said, 'I'm going to vote for the extra lunch so that I can eat an extra lunch and when I go home I won't eat mommy and daddy's food and my brother will have something to eat tonight,' " Unger said.

"And I was done. Then I asked the other children how many of you all are in the same situation as this senator? The vast majority of the hands went up."

That little debate gave way to Feed to Achieve, an act that passed last year that works to provide free breakfast and lunch to students in public schools. Implementation of the act is in its first phase, and officials say they've seen a dramatic increase in the number of students who participate in their school's breakfast program.

"Usually up until Feed to Achieve, many schools had breakfast right at the beginning of the school day and that's when children were getting off the school bus, grabbing their books, talking to their friends, the homeroom bell is ringing and they've got to get to homeroom," Unger said.

"Many of them skipped it."

Around that time, school breakfast participation hovered around an average of 20 percent. Feed to Achieve realigned breakfast time to increase student participation. Now, breakfast is served between homeroom and first period, as a grab-and-go or in the classroom.

"I understand participation rates are going through the roof," Unger said.

Berkeley Heights Elementary School has seen its participation rate skyrocket from around 20 percent to nearly 80 percent in one year. Unger said the school also is experiencing fewer discipline and behavioral problems and student achievement has gone up as well.

Rick Goff, executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition within the West Virginia Department of Education, is in charge of implementing and overseeing the program. He said it's "quite daunting," but seeing great success.

"There were parts of the bill that were really shovel ready for us," Goff said.

"We have the breakfast program in place so the priority of realigning breakfast with the school day, we were ready to jump on that and we appropriated funding to put those breakfast strategies in place."

Over the next six months, the Department of Education will focus on another aspect of the bill-the public-private partnership. This part of the law sets up funds at the county level where donors can give money.

Goff said donors would be able to specify which county they want to support and even what specific school's program they would like to fund. These funds will be used in conjunction with grants and other funding mechanisms already in place to pay for the program.

West Virginia was one of the first states to require a schoolbased breakfast program, said Linda St. Clair, coordinator in the Office of Child Nutrition.

"There are states in the United States that don't have programs, schools that don't have breakfast," Goff said.

In West Virginia, 50 to 60 percent of students are classified as "needy," or qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch. Before Feed to Achieve went into effect, about 30 percent of students participated in their schools' breakfast program while nearly 70 percent ate lunch, according to a graph from the Office of Child Nutrition.

"You look at the gap between the (percentage of needy) and the (breakfast participation rate) and you see very quickly the past 10 years, we haven't even been feeding our needy kids breakfast," Goff said.

"That was huge. That's major. We needed that corrected.

"Feed to Achieve is a game changer for the school meals program," he added.

Goff said eventually the breakfast participation rate would intersect with the percentage of needy students, and eventually surpass it, meaning all needy students will be fed and even some who don't qualify for free or reduced meals.

Although school officials see the good in the program, it's not without its challenges. That includes serving foods kids will enjoy.

"One of the things we've had to do is work with the counties on how to entice kids to come in and eat breakfast because it was kind of an afterthought, it wasn't real creative menuing either," St. Clair said.

Although the hot breakfast is pretty popular with students, cooks are challenged, St. Clair said.

"The cooks just got their workload increased because they have more breakfast served and they have to be ready for lunch," St. Clair said. "That's where the real challenge comes in. You can put things on the menu that make them want to eat, but the time factor is in there."

Unger pointed out that while the act focuses on all children, not just those who receive welfare or other government help. Unger said those children deserve to be helped, not punished because of choices their parents may have made.

"What I'm thinking in all of this is that that child can bring us together," Unger said.

"No matter what you stand on, whatever your philosophy, that child can bring us together as a community to share. That child did nothing to be in poverty. That child cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. That child is dependent.

"We may be mad at their parents or guardians if they're negligent. We can be mad at them, but we ought to punish the ones we're mad at, not the victims - the child."


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