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School breakfast-lunch bill passes Senate; heads for House

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers heard stories of children going hungry.

At recent meetings, they heard about hungry Randolph County students licking their cafeteria trays after Superstorm Sandy struck, about a Berkeley County elementary school student who wanted an extra meal to bring home to his brother and the time an Oak Hill boy hugged a bag of apples he received at school to bring home.

On Friday, legislators took the next step in a plan to fight childhood hunger in West Virginia. State senators voted 34-0 to approve a bill (SB633) to make free breakfasts and lunches available to every student in public schools, pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. West Virginia would become the first state in the nation to enact such a program.

"There's no reason any child should go hungry. None," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, who heads a select committee investigating childhood poverty issues in West Virginia.

The bill would establish nonprofit foundations that would raise money to help pay for free meals for all public school students. Now, only low-income children get free and discounted lunches and breakfasts at school.

At meetings in Oak Hill and Beckley, the Senate select committee heard from middle-income parents who said they struggle to pay their children's monthly school lunch bills.

Senators also learned that many low-income children aren't taking advantage of free breakfast and lunch programs. About 55 percent of children qualify for free- and reduced-price school meals, but only one of every three students eats breakfast at school in West Virginia.

The Senate bill encourages schools to offer "grab-and-go" breakfasts, and to allow students to eat breakfast in class or after first period.

The nonprofit foundations established under the bill must use donations strictly to fund meals. None of the money could be spent on administrative or personnel costs. Businesses and individuals would donate to the nonprofit funds overseen by the Department of Education and county school boards.

On Friday, Unger dismissed criticism that the Feed to Achieve program would provide meals to children of wealthy parents.

"Parents who can still pay should pay," Unger said. "They also can donate to the program."

Unger said schools already provide children with free textbooks and free bus rides to school, so it makes sense for school to offer free meals, as well.

"This bill is to ensure no child is going hungry in West Virginia," Unger said.

The program would take effect in fall 2015, starting in elementary schools and expanding into middle and high schools as additional funds become available.

Unger predicts that the universal school-meal program will drive more federal dollars into West Virginia. The federal government reimburses the state for every school breakfast and lunch served.

The bill's supporters say students who eat nutritious meals get better grades and higher test scores -- and cause fewer discipline problems.

"We can have the best schools, the best teachers . . . but if the child is hungry, then student achievement won't occur," Unger said. "This is about making sure every child is ready to learn."

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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