September 22, 2016

More not all bad

This op-ed of mine on WV's recent gains in child nutrition ran in today's Gazette-Mail:

Now that we’re officially back to school, some folks out there may have noticed that more kids are eating school meals and are doing so at no cost to families. As I’ll try to show below, that’s a big deal and a good thing for lots of reasons.

In West Virginia, where we’re used to leading the pack on the bad lists and bringing up the rear on good ones, we’ve even taken the lead on an important child nutrition measure.

For the last two years, our state has led the nation in school breakfast participation. We even beat ourselves by 9 percent in the most recent year. What this means is that over 82 percent of low-income kids in the state received free school breakfasts, compared with a national average of just 54.3 percent.

One reason for the increase was the passage in 2013 of the Feed to Achieve Act, which had broad bipartisan support. One thing the bill did was require schools to offer innovative ways of delivering breakfast to kids.

The old way of doing it, before classes began, just wasn’t cutting it. New ways included grab and go breakfasts, breakfasts after first period and breakfasts in the classroom. And they proved to be a hit.

Some friends of mine have done the math and they found that our state served 5.88 million more breakfasts last year than in 2013.

More schools statewide are also taking advantage of the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows schools to provide free meals to all students in schools where 40 percent or more of students are low-income.

That provision can help improve child nutrition, along with improving learning and reducing discipline problems. It also gives a break to working parents, removes issues of stigma, and can save schools time and money on paperwork.

Feed to Achieve and CEP complement each other. As innovative ways of delivering breakfasts increase, participation rates go up. So do federal reimbursements to schools, which makes CEP more appealing.

At last count — and the numbers change constantly — out of 54 eligible counties, all but six have implemented CEP at some or all schools. The most recent to come aboard was Pocahontas County, where the school board voted to move ahead last month. Over 20 counties provide free meals to all students countywide. And no county that has had CEP since 2012 has chosen to drop the program.

According to the latest data I have, the only eligible counties which have refused to implement the Community Eligibility Program in any schools were Putnam, Monroe, Tucker, Hampshire, Monongalia, and Hancock. (To be fair to Monongalia and Tucker counties, these have gone back and forth in terms of eligibility.)

All in all, Feed to Achieve and CEP have been a good deal for kids, schools and parents. But it’s an even bigger deal than that.

According to the Food Research & Action Center, “Mounting evidence shows that healthy school meals play a key role in supporting the well-being of children, including alleviating food insecurity; improving dietary intake; and mitigating obesity…”

Specifically, the data suggests that free or reduced school meals reduce food insecurity by at least 3.8 percent and also reduces breakfast-skipping. Low-income students who participate have better diet quality than those who don’t.

There are also major potential long-term health benefits. Participation in federally funded child feeding programs is associated with a significantly lower body mass index. According to research published in the Journal of Econometrics, school meal participation reduces obesity rates by at least 17 percent.

The reasons for this are pretty simple. As a school cook in Pocahontas County put it at a school board meeting, “I think we’d see a lot less candy bars, cookies, potato chips and soda pop.”

In a state where it has been estimated that 7 out of 10 health care dollars are spent on chronic diseases often associated with obesity, that’s a huge deal. No pun intended.

The Food Research & Action Center concludes that “Schools that offer breakfast free to all students in the classroom report decreases in discipline, psychological problems, visits to school nurses and tardiness; increases in student attentiveness and attendance; and generally improved learning environments.”

In these troubled times, it’s nice to see West Virginia shine. If we keep up the progress we’ve made in this important area, we can shine even brighter in the future.

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