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West Virginia filling students’ bellies and minds

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In West Virginia’s Mason County, children walk to the cafeteria together so they can start the day’s lessons with a breakfast 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.

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The goal is to improve achievement in a state that ranks 47th nationally in public education, according to an ­annual study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and improve health in a state where federal officials say 29 percent of high school students are obese.

‘‘They do it as a classroom and they’re eating with their buddies, and it makes it more of 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 that 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 would also 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.

Governor 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, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, found a quantifiable link between eating breakfast and student performance.

‘‘Skipping breakfast is relatively common among children in the US and other industrialized nations and is associated with quantifiable negative consequences for academic, cognitive, health, and mental health functioning,’’ Murphy concluded.

Jeffrey Kessler, president of the state Senate, 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 US 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 is affordable. At Bigley Foodland in Charleston, $4 will buy two Red Delicious apples, 1 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 children live in families with income below the federal poverty level. About half 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.

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