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Free Meals for All? Not so Fast

Free Meals for All? Not so Fast

West Virginia’s Feed to Achieve Act isn’t feeding all kids free meals, but it has increased breakfast participation.

When West Virginia’s Feed to Achieve Act was passed in 2013, the headlines boasted of free meals for all students. And while there’s the possibility for free meals through the bill, that’s not exactly the reality.

One of the provisions in Feed to Achieve required each district in the state to establish a budget line to receive donations from individuals, organizations and the state department. Those donations were then to be used to feed students free school meals.

Not surprisingly, few donations were actually received, says Chris Derico, child nutrition director for Lewis County Schools and past president of the School Nutrition Association’s West Virginia branch. “Obviously West Virginia has not received enough donations at this point and not every student in West Virginia is receiving free meals,” Derico says. “There was a lot of bad press about that because that was the emphasis [of the stories] and that wasn’t really realistic that that was going to happen or that that could be sustained.”

So the law’s a bust, right? Not so fast, Derico says.

“The legislator who wrote the law, his whole focus was on ending hunger in West Virginia,” Derico says. “We wanted to emphasize that the students were receiving two meals at school. West Virginia has always had a really high lunch participation. We’re in the 70 to 80 percent lunch participation, so we haven’t put too much emphasis on increasing that. Its’ really been breakfast, which has been in the 20 to 25 percent range.”

The bill also required districts to enact some form of innovative breakfast strategy to boost the state’s morning meal participation.

“I don’t want to say the traditional breakfast is gone in West Virginia, but in a lot of schools they are not doing a traditional breakfast,” Derico says. “It’s grab and go, breakfast in the classroom or breakfast after first. And breakfast participation is up across the state.”

According to the Food Research and Action Center’s  (FRAC) 2015 Breakfast Scorecard, West Virginia had the second largest jump in the percentage of low-income students eating school breakfast last year, at 11.2 percent, when compared to the 2012-2013 school year.

In addition to implementing innovative breakfast strategies as specified under Feed to Achieve, the state was also emphasizing participation in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, under which districts that have at least 40 percent of their population qualifying for free or reduced priced meals can feed all students for free regardless of their payment status.

Derico says that although donations aren’t flowing in to feed students for free right now, he hopes the bill will provide some assistance in the future, noting that the state department plans to apply for grants and do other fundraising with that money going into district’s budget lines created for Feed to Achieve.

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