CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — In West Virginia's Mason County, children walk to the cafeteria together so they can start the day's lessons with a side of whole grain waffles, cereal, fruit and milk.
Here, among the coal mines and farms so familiar across Appalachia, the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day is taken literally as a way to tackle two problems: improving achievement in a state that ranks 47th nationally in public education, according to an annual study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and improving health in a state where federal officials say 29 percent of high schoolers are obese.
"They do it as a classroom and they're eating with their buddies, and it makes it more of like a family atmosphere," said Cristi Rulen, the food service director for Mason County's 10 schools. "Our discipline is down, our attendance is up. It has its advantages."
Now, lawmakers have passed a bill they hope will expand Mason County's model and make sure no West Virginia student is ever denied a meal because of cost. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and would require every school to have some sort of breakfast program like the one in Mason County.
It also would require every county to set up a fund to collect private donations that would have to be used for food — not salaries or administrative costs. For instance, schools could use the money to buy more produce or start gardening programs or summer food programs.
West Virginia will be the first state in the nation to set up a statewide public-private funding partnership to try to improve school meals programs. Janet Poppendieck, a sociology professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the author of several books on food policy, said she was amazed by West Virginia's program and called it innovative.
Schools get money from the federal government for every meal they serve, anywhere from 50 cents to $3 per meal depending upon the income of the child's parents. The more meals served, the more federal money — and lawmakers hope the bill will allow schools to take maximum advantage of those federal funds. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is expected to sign the bill into law by the end of the month.
In the rush of chaotic mornings, many students simply skip breakfast. Others live in poverty, with families unable to regularly put any food on the table, much less a healthy breakfast each morning.
A 2007 paper by J. Michael Murphy, a psychiatrist at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital, found a quantifiable link between eating breakfast and student performance.
"Skipping breakfast is relatively common among children in the U.S. and other industrialized nations and is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health and mental health functioning," Murphy concluded.
West Virginia Senate President Jeffrey Kessler put it more simply.
"It's abundantly clear that a child can't learn if a child can't stay focused because the belly's not full," Kessler said.
The United States Department of Agriculture found that in 2011, 18 million American households, 15 percent of all households, were food insecure. That means that at some point during the year, those families had difficulty providing food. More than 14 percent of West Virginia households are food insecure.
Poor nutrition is often a matter of what's affordable. At Bigley Foodland in Charleston, W.Va., $4 will buy two red delicious apples, one pound of carrots and two sweet potatoes, for a total of about 870 calories. Alternatively, the same $4 will buy six jumbo franks, two boxes of macaroni and cheese and one box of raspberry gelatin desert, for a total of 3,020 calories.
In West Virginia, about one-quarter of kids live in families with income below the federal poverty level. About half of kids live in families with income below double the poverty level, generally estimated to be the level at which a family can get by with no outside or government assistance, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.
Carolyn Buzbee, a teacher at Independence Middle School in Coal City, W.Va., said at a recent public forum that her students are sometimes reluctant to discuss hunger and poverty.
"My students don't want to talk about poverty. I try to nonchalantly broach the topic: 'Do you know anybody that lives in poverty?' 'No, I don't know anybody, we're all good,'" Buzbee said. "But I know at the end of school they'll ask, 'Can I have one of those granola bars?'"
Crystal Foster Jones works for ResCare Beckley, providing services to people with disabilities in Beckley, W.Va. She was visibly emotional speaking at the same meeting.
"I grew up in poverty," Jones said. "I remember growing up standing in line for commodity cheese and peanut butter, and I see the struggle, the same struggle today, 30 years later, when helping my families."
The bill's relatively few opponents have argued that feeding hungry families is a task best left to charity groups such as food banks and churches. But food pantries have had a difficult time keeping food on their own shelves since the Great Recession.
"We only give three to four days' worth of food, and you can only come once a month," said Kristen Harrison, director of Catholic Charities in southern West Virginia. Her region includes McDowell County, one of the poorest areas in the country, where more than 70 percent of children live in a house that does not have an adult with a job.
State Superintendent Jim Phares said he realized how important school meals can be last fall when he was Randolph County superintendent and Superstorm Sandy shut down the county's schools for 11 days.
"We knew it was absolutely critical to get kids back in school because they weren't eating. When they got back, we were giving them seconds," Phares said. "When you see kids without the wherewithal to get food when they're not in school who are licking their trays, you know how severe this is."