CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia lawmakers unveiled a plan Wednesday to provide free breakfasts and lunches to all students who attend public schools.
The Senate Select Committee on Children and Poverty originated a bill (SB663) that would allow the state Department of Education and county school boards to set up nonprofit foundations that would raise money to help fund the free breakfast and lunch programs. The full Senate is expected to take a final vote on the bill Friday.
"I think this will prove to be one of the most important pieces of legislation that comes out this year," said Bob Brown, an American Federation of Teachers lobbyist. "Hungry children don't learn as well as other children. They simply don't."
The legislation -- titled the "Feed to Achieve Act" -- would boost the number of children who take part in the state's school breakfast and lunch program. Now, only low-income students get free and discounted meals at school.
"This bill will send out a call that no child will go hungry," said Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley.
Education officials said about 55 percent of West Virginia students qualify for free- and reduced-price meals, but only about one of every three students statewide takes part in the school breakfast program.
The bill requires schools to develop ways to increase the number of students who receive free meals. With more students participating, federal funding to the state would increase, the bill's supporters say. The federal government reimburses the state for every meal served.
State education officials said students often don't eat breakfast at school because the meal is typically served before the school day starts. The bill allows schools to offer "grab-and-go" breakfasts. Students also could eat breakfast in classrooms, and after their first-period class.
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.
County school boards would establish "public/private partnerships" to provide free meals for all students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade. Businesses and individuals would donate money to support the universal free-meal program.
State school board President Wade Linger, who owns a Fairmont-based technology company, predicted that businesses would embrace the Feed to Achieve program.
"It gives businesses an opportunity to actively participate in the process," Linger said.