Soon after she became superintendent in spring 2010, Marple hit the road and started visiting schools. "She'd drop by my office to tell me about the chicken nuggets and corn dogs she'd seen kids eating," Goff said.
"West Virginia leads the nation in obesity, diabetes and heart disease," Marple said. "Do we only fix these problems after they happen? Or do we also begin to fix things from the get-go?
"It's going to save money in the end if we feed all our children and encourage them to eat nutritious meals," she said. "Then maybe there won't be 30 percent of our fifth-graders who are obese. And maybe there won't be 25 percent who have high blood pressure and high cholesterol."
For years, as director of the Office of Child Nutrition, Goff has waged war on empty calories. He and his staff got junk food out of school vending machines, drove soda pop from the schools, and stiffened the state's nutritional standards.
"I've been waiting for a long time for a superintendent to make meal preparation a priority," Goff said.
Last fall, Goff invited Marple to eat at three Cabell County schools where cooks prepare meals from fresh ingredients five days a week. "I wanted her to see schools where it's being done right," he said.
"After that visit, she asked me, 'What can we do to spread this statewide?' I didn't have to be asked twice."
They decided to do a trial run first in a few counties. Goff started recruiting. The seven counties volunteered.
By the end of December, the number of breakfasts served in the seven counties had skyrocketed from 43,600 a day to 74,900 a day. The lunch count rose to 75,597. In four months, the extra meals pulled in more than $1 million in additional federal funds, compared to 2010.
"Cooking from scratch costs less than processed food," Goff said, "so you save money on the food. Then you have the extra reimbursement."
The federal government reimburses $2.51 per lunch for a child who is eligible for free meals and $2.11 for a reduced-price meal. The county receives 28 cents for each paying child, even if the school serves the meal for free. A separate, lower reimbursement scale is set for breakfast.
"If you serve a lot more kids, you can break even on breakfast, with federal reimbursement, especially if a lot of kids qualify for free and reduced-price meals," Goff said.
"Even if you end up paying a little more overall, it's worth it, for what the kids learn in life skills," Goff said.
"I think people would protest now if we tried to take it away."
Why is this working?
Goff's office doesn't order counties to quit serving prepackaged food. "We wouldn't want to," he said. "For it to work, they have to buy in. But we can try to inspire them."
Last summer, his office arranged for cooks from the seven counties to train for two days with veteran Cabell County cooks, learning tricks of turning out scratch meals for hundreds of kids.
They seasoned raw chicken with oil/herb rub and steamed hundreds of bunches of broccoli. They learned to use tools that puree or chop hundreds of vegetables. They baked hundreds of pizza bread rolls. They flavored with garlic and onion powder, lemon, ginger and herbs, to make food tasty. They learned how to make various salad dressings and homemade croutons.
"It's no easy thing, to cook for that many kids," said Kristi Blower, project coordinator. "It's one thing to make it taste good for your family, but another to cook for hundreds, with nutrition guidelines to follow."
"You learn to make different choices," she said: fresh marinated chicken chunks, for instance, vs. prepackaged, chemical-laced, breaded chicken nuggets.
The seven counties got necessary kitchen equipment and student-tested recipes. "When school started, we were ready to go," said Kay Maynard, Mingo County food services supervisor.
"We used to have a lot of kids trying to pay attention on an empty stomach," she said. "That's not so anymore."
At Gilmer County high school, more than 80 percent of students are eating school lunch. "That's unheard of, nationally," Goff said.
In mid-March, Gilmer high schoolers rolled through the lunch line to pick up rotisserie chicken and roasted garlicky red potatoes. At the "Grab 'n' Go" station outside the kitchen, a few picked up pizza bread. Students wiped out the salad bar.
Last year in December, only 46 percent of all students ate breakfast. Now it's 87 percent.
"Last fall, a group of my teachers came to me and said, 'This is the best thing that's happened,'" Gilmer County High School Principal Nasia Butcher said. "They say they're seeing much better attention and focus, much better concentration since this started."
"We may not break even this first year," food services director Joe Frashure said. Fifty nine percent of Gilmer students qualify for free or reduced meals. "But this has been so good for the kids, we've pretty much decided that, if we have to pay a little more for it, it's well worth it."
"This obesity problem was created in a generation, and it's going to take a generation to solve it," Goff said.
Three non-demonstration counties have already started a universal free breakfast. Eight others eliminated the 40-cent "reduced price" charge.
The next step for West Virginia school food: four cooking-from-scratch trainings next summer, then regional trainings through the school year. "It looks like we're going to have more counties wanting to send cooks than we'll have room for," he said.
Reach Kate Long at katel...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1798.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.