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Schools gearing up 'Feed to Achieve'

How can West Virginia have a problem with childhood hunger and childhood obesity at the same time?

It's a question that comes up repeatedly as county school systems begin to carry out the Feed to Achieve Act approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

Really, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same problem.

"What's happening is they're getting the calories, but they're not getting the proper calories," Mingo County Schools Superintendent Randy Keithley said of students recently.

Of course, many adults know intimately how this works. People who are watching insulin resistance or diabetes know their bodies react differently to an egg compared to toast. And how many adults trying to drop weight shun the calories in soft drinks or pizza crust in favor of those in lean meat and broccoli?

It is the same for kids, except children are still growing; they are expected to learn, behave and perform on command all day; and to a large extent, they don't control their schedules or what food is available to them.

That's one of the reasons I was so pleased to see the Feed to Achieve Act pass. It is not enough to tell kids to choose foods that are best for their bodies. One must create opportunities for children to discover and enjoy those foods. The new law enables school systems to accept donations for projects to help feed hungry children. That's a nice thing, and at least one donation has come in -- $1,000 in Berkeley County.

But the more significant part of this law requires county school systems to adopt alternative methods of serving meals that will get more young people eating.

"This conveys to our children that breakfast and lunch is an integral part of the school day," says Rick Goff, director of the state Education Department's Office of Child Nutrition. "It's not an interruption. It's part of the educational process."

Grown-ups might take a bit longer to soak up that message. Today's working adults, after all, were conditioned from their own school days to see mealtimes as interruptions. Demands of work easily reinforce that attitude.

Statewide, 60 percent of students come from families with incomes small enough to qualify for free or reduced price school meals. Only about 30 percent eat breakfast at school every day.

"The need is there," Goff said. "The hunger is there. But the meal is not readily available. Breakfast in public schools is at the worst possible time it could be, right at start up. Buses are arriving. The bell is ringing. Kids want to talk to their friends."

But schools that have made changes -- such as serving breakfast after first period or offering bags students can take with them -- saw a difference right away in attendance and behavior.

Students who eat breakfast at school have better attendance, fewer tardies, fewer behavioral problems, increased test scores and improved academic achievement, Goff said.

In Berkeley County, Tracy Heck, director of child nutrition and wellness, said Musselman High School started offering breakfast after first period last year. They went from feeding about 100 students a day to almost 700 a day. The principal there has commented that late breakfast is so popular she could never get rid of it. She would have a rebellion on her hands, Heck said.

Mingo's Keithley was one of several speakers at a webinar attended by about 100 people around the state carrying out the Feed to Achieve Act. "The first step is getting that sense of urgency out there," he said. In his county, 78.5 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged households.

"When you have parents or grandparents struggling to put a roof over their heads, trying to put a nutritious meal together on a very limited income can be very difficult. Not only that, but it might not be the highest priority."

Children of any income level are too young and impetuous to realize that they have one body, and it's important to take care of it. That's as it should be. That's why they have adults to put good choices in front them, and to set good examples to serve in years to come.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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