The new program would start in elementary schools, then expand to middle and high schools as additional funds from the nonprofit foundations become available. The program would take effect in fall 2015.
"This is definitely a game-changer for the children of West Virginia," said Rick Goff, executive director of the Department of Education's Office of Child Nutrition. "West Virginia is taking a huge step forward."
The Department of Education would collaborate with other state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Agriculture.
"We recognized proper nutrition is a key to a successful child," said DHHR Secretary Rocco Fucillo.
State schools Superintendent Jim Phares said the free breakfast and lunch bill would help bolster Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's education reform legislation, which received final approval last week.
"This bill is absolutely essential to complement the governor's bill, if we want to improve student achievement in West Virginia," Phares said.
Phares, former Randolph County superintendent, said last year's storms -- the June derecho and Superstorm Sandy -- spotlighted the critical need for expanded school meal programs. Fallen trees blocked roads, and families couldn't get to stores to buy food in rural communities.
"We had folks who were starving in Randolph County, mostly children," Phares recalled. "We knew it was critical to get kids back in school, because they weren't eating."
Sen. Ron Stollings, a Boone County doctor, said he's frustrated that the state has established programs to combat hunger in the past and that problems persist.
"We're doing a fair amount of stuff, but our kids are going hungry," Stollings said. "It breaks my heart."
Reach Eric Eyre at erice...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.