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Wood County school board not sold on free meals

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — Wood County Schools officials are pitching a universal free-breakfast program which could save the district nearly $100,000, but Wood County Board of Education members remain unconvinced.

The board has rejected similar programs several times in recent years. Hollie Best, director of food service for Wood County Schools, presented the program Sept. 8 to the board.

“We’ve had this presentation for the last four years,” said Board President John Marlow, who has repeatedly voted against the program. “I still struggle with (approving) this.”

Best said the program presented this year differs from past plans, focusing on offering free breakfast which could dramatically increase student breakfast participation. About 28 percent of students district-wide ate breakfast at school last year, an increase of about 8 percent over the previous year. Countless studies have shown a student who eats breakfast every day shows markedly higher grades and testing scores.

Best also said the plan would annually save the district $96,000, even after factoring in additional staff and resources needed to serve more meals as participation increases. Best said there is no cost for the district to adopt the program, and it could be ended next year if the board is not satisfied with the results.

“We have the potential to increase our breakfast by 5,000 meals a day at no cost to the school system,” she said. “We’re feeding our students plus we can save money in the long run.”

One of the sticking points of the program, however, is the CEP or Community Eligibility Program, a federal reimbursement program which would provide free lunches for all students at the district’s 14 Title I schools – Emerson, Fairplains, Franklin, Gihon, Jefferson, Kanawha, Madison, Martin, McKinley, Mineral Wells, Neale, Waverly and Worthington elementary schools and VanDevender Middle.

Without that component, Best said, the district cannot afford to extend the free breakfast program to all schools.

Board members argued it would be unfair to provide free meals to students who could pay for their lunches simply because they attend a Title I school when students at the district’s other 13 schools would not receive such benefits. To extend the free lunch program to all Wood County public schools would cost $250,000 annually.

“It sounds to me like we are probably benefiting the children who could pay for their lunch,” Marlow said. “That’s where I struggle as a board member.”

Best said all schools and students would benefit from free breakfast, and the free lunch program would target “our most economically disadvantaged schools.” The lunch program is intended to help “the working poor,” those families whose income puts them out of range for federal services but who still struggle to make ends meet, she said.

Board member Tim Yeater pointed to the cost of a district-wide program as an indicator the plan was flawed.

“If it was such a good deal, we could offer it to the whole county and still save money, but it’s really not that good of a deal,” he said. “It’s only a good deal to the schools with the high poverty rate.”

“That’s why I’m saying let’s do a universal free breakfast,” Best said. “Let’s start with (free lunch at Title I schools) for those students and then see where else it can go.”

Board member Jim Asbury also questioned the district’s continued reliance on federal funding which could be withdrawn and asked whether such a universal meals program would be in line with the school system’s priority of educating students.

“Is this really something we should be doing?” he said. “Is this really the role of Wood County Schools?”

Yeater agreed.

“I have mixed thoughts about if this is what schools should be doing,” he said.

Board member Lawrence Hasbargen said while he agreed the school system was taking on many of the responsibilities which should remain with parents, he was hesitant to discard this opportunity.

“I’m just a person who believes in helping children,” he said.

Marlow also argued if the board rejects the program, eligible students throughout the district will still be able to receive free and reduced-price meals. Best said those programs would continue but still require families to apply for the benefits. Those programs also would not help increase breakfast participation.

Marlow pointed out the district’s policy is to never deny a student a meal. Best agreed, but said the district carries an annual debt of about $800,000 for unpaid meal bills. Only a fraction of that money is recovered through use of debt collectors.

Superintendent John Flint said Best’s proposal is in response to the school board’s directive to find areas of savings within the budget and daily operations.

“When she brought this to me and started talking about the breakfast and lunch programs and the cost savings, it got my attention,” Flint said.

The program received support from representatives of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department and the Parkersburg Area Labor Council at the Sept. 8 meeting.

Greg Merritt, a Wood County Schools teacher and president of the Wood County American Federation of Teachers, spoke on behalf of the labor council, urging the board to adopt the program. Merritt said the application process for free and reduced-price meals can be daunting and humiliating to families, and encouraging students to eat breakfast and lunch while saving money was a win-win scenario for the school system.

Drema Mace, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, said the program was needed in Wood County.

“If we don’t start something, we’re costing the county money. It’s costing the county to not be a part of it,” she said. “I would urge you to improve child nutrition in Wood County by boosting breakfast participation.”

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