CHARLESTON - Many West Virginia public schools have changed the way they serve breakfast to students ahead of a requirement that goes into effect in September.
The requirement is part of the state Feed to Achieve law, adopted by the Legislature in 2013, which aims to maximize school meal participation by making it easier for students to eat at school.
The law recommends programs such as "grab and go" breakfasts, eating breakfast in class, or serving breakfast after first period.
More than 75 percent of the state's schools, 518, already have implemented one of the recommended breakfast programs, according to published reports.
"Breakfast, if you tie it to academic achievement, you get reduced tardies, reduced behavioral problems," Rick Goff, director of the West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition, said. "But it's typically offered at the worst possible time of the day. The kids are arriving, the bells ringing, the buses are late, they want to talk to their friends, they're hungry, but they just don't have the time."
The law also sets up foundations in each county, along with a foundation for the entire state, to collect private donations to fund expanded meal programs. Goff said the Office of Child Nutrition will use the donations to focus on getting students fed when they are not in school.
"We know that when they're in our care, they have access to two nutritious meals a day," Goff said. "Where they're at risk is when they're not in our care - weekends, spring break, the summer months."
School meals are funded by the federal government. One of the law's goals is to take greater advantage of federal money for meals by increasing student meal participation.
The effort began in 2011 as a pilot project in eight counties. Thirty-six percent of the state's public school students ate breakfast in schools in 2012, up from 28 percent to 30 percent in previous years. So far this year, 41 percent of students are eating breakfast in schools.
"We've tried for 10 years to get a percentage-point increase in breakfast," Goff said, "and now we've jumped at least 10 percent."
Mason County has the highest participation rate with nearly 80 percent of students eating breakfast in schools. All 10 of the county's public schools have implemented some type of innovative breakfast program.
Less than 20 percent of students eat breakfast in schools in Wood County, where 26 of 27 schools have made no changes in how they serve breakfast. Wood County's participation rate is the lowest in the state.