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Student breakfast program usage jumps

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A two-month-old pilot program in seven counties has caused a dramatic increase in the number of students eating school breakfast.

Mingo, McDowell, Lincoln, Fayette, Clay and Gilmer County school systems now provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students, regardless of economic status. Westside Elementary in Kanawha County and Guyandotte Elementary in Cabell County also provide free meals.

Mason County Schools provide free breakfasts for all students.

Rick Goff, the state Department of Education's executive director of child nutrition, said all participating counties have seen dramatic increases.

Gilmer County's participation increased from 42 percent in September 2010 to 84 percent in September 2011.

Lincoln County's rate increased from 37 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2011.

About 85 percent of Mason County students ate school breakfast in September, up from 43 percent the year before.

In Mingo County, about 77 percent of students ate school breakfast in September. In September 2010, only about 31 percent had school breakfast.

About 75 percent of McDowell students ate school breakfast, up from 43 percent a year earlier.

Fayette County's breakfast participation increased from 35 percent in September 2010 to 62 percent. Clay County's participation increased from 42 percent to 65 percent.

"That tells me the kids were hungry, they just didn't have a chance to participate," Goff told state board members Wednesday. "We just need to change when we feed them."

In addition to providing free breakfasts, Goff said schools also have changed the way they feed students.

Some schools have implemented a "grab-and-go" breakfast, others have moved breakfast from the beginning of the day to after students' first class. Some allow students to eat in the classroom.

Goff said  at schools that allow students to eat their breakfast in the classroom, between 80 and 100 percent of students participate.

"It's as common in those schools as taking roll and saying the Pledge of Allegiance," he said.

Some Lincoln County school cooks assemble wagons full of breakfast food, which are delivered to students in their classrooms.

Gilmer County offers a grab-and-go breakfast bar, where students can take a breakfast sandwich or a milk before class.

One Mingo County elementary school teacher holds her first class of the day in the cafeteria. Students have breakfast while the teacher takes the roll and makes announcements.

"Once the kids are finished eating, they go back to the regular classroom," Goff said.

Higher participation rates funnel more federal dollars into the school systems, Goff said.

The federal government reimburses counties for every free-and-reduced-price lunch they serve. That rate is currently about $3 per breakfast meal, Goff said.

Lincoln County's federal reimbursements have almost doubled in the last year because of the increase. The county received $43,796 for free breakfasts in September 2010. A year later, the county received $83,364.  

Goff said it's not clear whether the universal free meals will hurt counties' pocketbooks. Some counties may have to absorb the additional costs, but others end in the black, he said.

Despite the potential costs, Goff said other school systems are jumping onboard.

Statewide, 45 school systems have agreed to change the way they deliver breakfast, he said. Marshall, Monongalia and Grant County Schools have started their own universal free breakfast programs.

Eight other counties recently agreed to eliminate the "reduced price" distinction for students - all those students now receive lunch free of charge.

"Instead of charging those children 30 cents, the county is absorbing those costs," Goff said.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or



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