By David Gutman
The West Virginia Senate hopes that instituting public-private funding partnerships will enable the state to become the nation’s first to give free breakfast and lunch to all schoolchildren. The program would initially focus on elementary schools with hopes to expand it to all students as funds become available.
The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Friday that would create the partnerships in each of the state’s 55 counties. The bill also attempts to increase participation in the current meal programs which would bring the state more federal funding. It now heads to the House for consideration.
The state is reimbursed by the federal government for every meal it serves. The levels of reimbursement vary depending on the economic status of a child’s parents. More than half the children in the state qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but so far this year, only 38 percent of all students are eating breakfast at school.
With relatively modest increases in meal participation, the state could bring in millions more in federal funding. The bill requires schools to institute programs that have proven successful around the state in boosting participation.
Such programs include “grab and go” breakfasts and letting kids eat breakfast in the classroom or after first period. Breakfast participation often lags because kids don’t have time to eat after arriving at school and before going to class.
The more ambitious aspect of the bill requires every county board of education to set up foundations to solicit private donations. The bill stipulates that every dollar in donations must be used to buy food for students, not for administrative purposes. As money becomes available, free meals will be provided for every elementary school child with hopes that the program can be expanded to all students.
Donations would be tax deductible and donors could stipulate that their dollars go to a specific school.
The bill passed the full Senate only two days after being originated. It has moved faster than all but one of the 1,827 bills introduced this session. Because the bill has moved so fast, it’s too soon to tell how successful the foundations would be in collecting donations, but local business leaders have been encouraging.
Steve Roberts, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said that they were eager to both donate and participate.
“I have a lot of confidence that as employers are informed of this specific need that they will want to help,” Roberts said. “In West Virginia we have a really long tradition of everybody helping.”
Ruth Lemmon, the president of the state automobile dealers association, said her group would discuss the program at their next board meeting this spring. Lemmon said she didn’t want to speak for the board but she personally had already written a check.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall said he had gotten calls from constituents complaining that the Legislature was putting in a new state program and spending more tax dollars. The Putnam County Republican spoke on the floor of the Senate to clarify that no new state funds would be used. He said he saw the bill as creating a framework to increase participation in existing programs, not creating new programs.
In 2011, more than 25 percent of West Virginia children lived in households below the federal poverty level, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. About 50 percent of children lived below the self-sufficiency standard, a figure that estimates how much income a family needs to survive without any outside assistance.
Barb Painter, a coordinator at the Southern Appalachian Labor School in Kincaid delivered food and aid after a severe wind storm (a derecho) hit the area in June.
Painter described the experience at a recent community forum on child poverty.
“This little guy saw a bag of apples on the bed of the truck and he just kept grabbing the apples, and I looked at him and I said, ‘Honey, would you like an apple?’” Painter said. “His mom had said they’d run out of food a couple of days before the derecho hit. There were three kids and they were all hungry and it brought tears to my eyes.”