"We're cooking for a lot more kids this year," said veteran head cook Lena Lackey. They're also making food from scratch, five days a week. Yes, she said, it's more work than heat-and-serve, "but it's the only solid meals some of our kids get."
At 8:35 a.m., the seventh and eighth-graders came rolling through the cafeteria line, laughing and jostling, sticking breakfast items in paper bags -- yogurt, oranges or apples, cereal, milk, cheese bread. Not a Pop-tart or doughnut in sight.
The kindergartners ate in the cafeteria. The seventh and eighth-graders took their sacks back to their classrooms, "grab-n-go" style.
"A lot more kids eat, now that we've moved breakfast up to after first period," said Principal Dora Chaffin. "When we served it before school, a lot skipped it because they like to socialize then."
Nationwide, schools with free breakfast for all report greater attention in class, fewer discipline problems, and fewer absent or tardy children.
People who eat a regular, healthy breakfast tend to concentrate better and are less likely to be obese, research shows, partly because they don't overeat as much later.
Mingo County schools are pushing hard to improve school food and, especially, to get more kids eating breakfast because:
Down the hall, breakfast was being delivered to the fifth-grade classroom. Aides rolled a cart into the classroom, packed with breakfast choices.
All the children ate. A visitor asked, "How many of you would not have eaten breakfast if you weren't eating at school?" All but two raised their hands.
"The kids are focusing a lot better during lessons since this started," their teacher, Annette Martin, said. "They aren't sitting there thinking about being hungry."
More meals, more money
In August, state Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple challenged all school systems to try at least one new way to get more kids to eat school breakfast. Forty-five counties pledged to try. "It just makes sense," Marple said.
Mingo County and six other counties are also serving every child free this year as part of a statewide demonstration project. They are trying to cook less fattening meals five days a week from fresh ingredients.
"In the coalfields, it's not always possible to get all the fresh ingredients," Maynard said, "but we're managing to have fresh fruits and vegetables every day."
The percent of Mingo students eating breakfast has soared from 36 percent to 78 percent, compared with 2010, a 118 percent increase. Lunch eaters have jumped from 68 percent to 75 percent.