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Program looks at Summer food for students

RANSON, W.Va. — Ranson Elementary School students had plenty to celebrate Tuesday when federal officials joined them for food, fun – and even some happy dancing- to help kick off the Summer Food Service Program.

It was also an opportunity to honor Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, for the work he’s done to feed state children and also increase access to meals during their summer break from school.

Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, who works for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., said the national kickoff – Summer Food Week is now being observed across the country – was also being held locally because of the outstanding work being done by school staffers, as well as Unger and others in the local community.

He praised the state’s proactive efforts to feed children, adding that West Virginia was a national leader in this area – even predating the federal government’s efforts to improve school meals and increase the number of children eating them.

“But we are here specifically because Ranson Elementary is a leader in our school nutrition program,” Concannon said, speaking before an audience that included school students and staff, as well as Jefferson County Schools’ officials. “They realize that if you eat healthy on a daily basis that you grow and learn better.”

He praised principal Debra Corbett and the school for providing free breakfast and lunch options for the school’s approximately 400 students, as well as an opportunity for children to also have fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

“We are here to lift up the great work being done here. It is a wonderful, powerful statement of helping one another,” Concannon said.

FUN WITH A PURPOSE

But there was more to the celebration than just talking, since Concannon and other officials sat down with the children to eat lunch – a menu that included whole wheat spaghetti topped with meat sauce, salad and applesauce.

Before everything wrapped up, Rick Goff, who heads up the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition, led the group in a toast – cartons of milk, of course, held in the air – to help commemorate the fun, but also serve as a reminder that “hunger doesn’t take the summer off,” he said.

Goff also praised Unger’s successful effort to pass the “Feed to Achieve Act” by not only introducing it, but also helping shepherd it through the legislature.

“He truly is a champion for all of you here,” Goff said.

During the program, Unger also received a framed USDA certificate of appreciation that named him “a summer champion, in recognition of your ongoing dedication and commitment to the health of the children of West Virginia by the promotion of the Summer Food Service Program.”

Smiling as he looked at the award, Unger said the overall goal is to feed children but also keep them on track nutritionally over the summer – so they can return in the fall and be ready to learn again.

“Nutrition is vital because it develops the mind and the body, so we want to see kids maintain a certain nutritional level during the summer while also exercising their minds and bodies,” he said.

“This all goes into student achievement, because when they are not eating properly, it means their academic levels also diminish. And when the new school year starts, the teachers have to spend so much time getting them back up to the level where they left,” Unger said, adding that the summer feeding program will also include various activities such as reading and providing a snack as well as a meal.

OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES

Being with youngsters while talking about child hunger makes sense, not only because they are the ones suffering, but also because they have some good ideas for addressing this problem, he said.

Unger credited a young boy for having suggested that schools provide an extra lunch – but it was his explanation of why this was needed that “just broke my heart,” he said.

“He said that way he wouldn’t have to eat his mom and dad’s food, and his brother would have enough to eat,” Unger said.

Student Council representative Neveah Madyun said she’s never been truly hungry for very long, but can’t imagine how it would feel to know there was nothing to eat.

“I think it would not only be hard when you hadn’t eaten; I also think you’d spend your time wishing you were one of the people who had something to eat,” said Madyun, who dined with Unger and Concannon.

“Sometimes at lunch when I don’t eat much, because I don’t like it, the afternoon seems like it is so much longer,” she said.

Another student who also ate lunch with the officials, Angelica Osorio, said she’ll never forget their visit.

“Today has just been amazing, and I’m very thankful for them coming because I hope it means no one else will have to go hungry – especially in the summer,” she said.

The “School’s Out! Power Up for Summer Fun” is open to all children 18 years of age and younger. It is free and registration is not required.

As a result, summer meals for children and teenagers will be available at Ranson Elementary School, June 29 -July 23, Monday through Thursday.

Breakfast will be served 8:30-9:30 a.m., and lunch is 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

– Staff writer Jenni Vincent can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 131.

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