CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Students should notice West Virginia's ambitious new plan to target child hunger and improve academic performance when they arrive this fall.
Expanding access to breakfast is likely the first component of the Feed to Achieve Act that will emerge following its signing by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin earlier this month, said Richard Goff, executive director of the Office of Child Nutrition at the state Department of Education.
"The game changer for our program and for the kids in West Virginia is the breakfast delivery strategy," said Goff, a 23-year veteran of the department. "For the first time in my tenure, it makes the meal program part of the educational day. It's not an interruption. That's where we'll see the big change."
A nearly unanimous Legislature passed the new law this session. It aims to provide free, nutritious breakfast and lunch for all public school students, from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The measure cited research that links healthy eating to improved student attendance, attentiveness, behavior, test scores and overall achievement.
The legislative debate surrounding Feed to Achieve included anecdotes about children showing up to class hungry from school officials and lawmakers, some of whom were in similar situations growing up. Goff said he routinely fields phone calls on the topic during the week students take the annual statewide standardized test.
"There is this sense of urgency regarding school meals," Goff said. "Why is that sense of urgency not present every week of the school year? It's important every day."
Supporters consider West Virginia's approach innovative, though the underlying problem is also being tackled elsewhere. The Ending Child Hunger in Alabama campaign, for instance, includes schools in its game plan and launched late last month. Nearly 300 public schools in Los Angeles, provide breakfast that students can take to class. But some teachers there have complained that the program eats into instruction time and that food left in classrooms attracts bugs and rodents, according to the union that represents them.
"That's disturbing to me. They have a problem in California," Goff said. "We don't have that in West Virginia. We have yet to receive any complaints like that."
All West Virginia schools provide breakfast, Goff said. Several also offer breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go meals for tardy students and breakfast after first period. Goff is upbeat about Feed to Achieve because it builds on those and other programs already offering meals to students, he said. More than 280 schools in 35 counties already offer free breakfast and lunch, for example, because their communities qualify for federal subsidies, Goff said.