CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In Mason County, children walk to the cafeteria together so they can start the day's lessons with a side of whole grain waffles, cereal, fruit and milk.
Here, among the coal mines and farms so familiar across Appalachia, the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is taken literally as a way to tackle two problems: improving achievement in a state that ranks 47th nationally in public education, according to an annual study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and improving health in a state where federal officials say 29 percent of high schoolers are obese.
"They do it as a classroom and they're eating with their buddies, and it makes it more of like a family atmosphere," said Cristi Rulen, the food service director for Mason County's 10 schools. "Our discipline [problem] is down, our attendance is up. It has its advantages."
Now, lawmakers have passed a bill they hope will expand Mason County's model and make sure no West Virginia student is ever denied a meal because of cost. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and would require every school to have some sort of breakfast program like the one in Mason County.
It also would require every county to set up a fund to collect private donations that would have to be used for food -- not salaries or administrative costs. For instance, schools could use the money to buy more produce or start gardening programs or summer food programs.
West Virginia will be the first state in the nation to set up a statewide public-private funding partnership to try to improve school meal programs. Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of several books on food policy, said she was amazed by West Virginia's program and called it innovative.
Schools get money from the federal government for every meal they serve, anywhere from 50 cents to $3 per meal, depending upon the income of the child's parents. The more meals served, the more federal money -- and lawmakers hope the bill will allow schools to take maximum advantage of those federal funds. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of the month.
In the rush of chaotic mornings, many students simply skip breakfast. Others live in poverty, with families unable to regularly put any food on the table, much less a healthy breakfast each morning.
A 2007 paper by J. Michael Murphy, a psychiatrist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, found a quantifiable link between eating breakfast and student performance.
"Skipping breakfast is relatively common among children in the U.S. and other industrialized nations and is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health and mental health functioning," Murphy concluded.
West Virginia Senate President Jeffrey Kessler put it more simply. "It's abundantly clear that a child can't learn if a child can't stay focused because the belly's not full," Kessler said.