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Gayle Manchin: Nutritious food helps students achieve

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By Gayle Manchin 
(For The Charleston Gazette)

So many factors matter when it comes to helping children succeed in school. High-quality standards and curriculum and strong teachers and leaders are clearly important elements. But another and often overlooked key to student achievement is access to nutritious food.

In West Virginia, far too many students come to school hungry each day. More than one in four children in the state are in low-income families and more than one in five live in homes that struggle against hunger. Students that are hungry at school are less motivated to learn and find it harder to concentrate. That is why access to healthy meals at school is so important.

Two years ago, West Virginia made a commitment to ensure that hungry children in our schools are getting enough nutritious food to eat each day. In the 2012-13 school year, West Virginia implemented the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This option allows high-poverty schools and certain high-poverty school districts to forgo collecting applications for free and reduced price school meals and provide breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students. Research shows that increasing school meal participation, particularly breakfast, improves student achievement, diets and behavior.

Because of community eligibility, West Virginia has successfully increased the number of students participating in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, reaching more hungry kids. On an average school day, before community eligibility was implemented, less than half of the students in our state who were eligible for a free breakfast received one, and only a third of students eligible for reduced price breakfast did. Things have changed. During the 2013- 2014 school year, 70 percent of counties in West Virginia are implementing CEP in 335 schools and providing over 40 percent of our students with free nutritious meals. As a result of community eligibility, which we combined with innovative models for serving breakfast, breakfast participation has risen by 15 percent. We have also reduced paperwork, helping to lower costs and free up staff time to focus on educational priorities.

In schools that have adopted community eligibility, we have a multitude of success stories. Mingo County, located in West Virginia’s southern coalfields, is one such story. With an unemployment rate of over 10 percent Mingo County students were no strangers to hard times. But the county made a commitment to focus on nutrition and adopted community eligibility to help their students thrive and succeed. They have also incorporated physical activity into the nutrition efforts and the results have been amazing. After implementation, student attendance increased to 97 percent and employee attendance is the fourth highest in the state. Math and reading scores have improved and discipline problems have decreased.

Community eligibility is currently available in 11 states, including West Virginia, and will be available to all states beginning with the 2014-15 school year. Starting May 1, all states are required to publish lists of all of high-poverty schools and districts that are eligible to participate in community eligibility this upcoming school year. Once these lists are published, schools will have until June 30, 2015 to decide whether to participate.

Other states can and should follow West Virginia’s and Mingo County’s lead in ensuring their students are not hungry and have healthy and nutritious meals. Our work here in West Virginia is a model for others to follow.

It’s time for us to ensure that students across the country have all of the building blocks necessary for success in the classroom. Reducing hunger will help them not only achieve today, but will also prepare them for a brighter future.

Gayle Manchin is president of the West Virginia Board of Education.