Rev. Dr. Victor L. Hunter of New Martinsville's First Christian Church approached the Wetzel County Board of Education, on behalf of the New Martinsville Ministerial Association, at Monday night's meeting regarding universal free meals for all Wetzel County schools in grades pre-kindergarten through eighth and Paden City Elementary School children, grades kindergarten through sixth. This program would begin in 2014.
Hunter stated the implementation of this program is based on a needs assessment, the request made through the Wetzel Chronicle for suggestions on how to spend the $1.3 million surplus from the 2012-2013 school year, a benefits assessment, and "as religious leaders in our community, to lift up the moral imperative to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable in our society in terms of health and education . . . "
Hunter stated that four of the grades in our kindergarten through eighth in Wetzel County are over 40 percent needy, meaning at least 40 percent of the households in the schools have been identified by the Department of Health and Human Resources or their incomes fall within the guidelines for free/reduced meal benefits. These schools included Center for Children and Families, Long Drain School, Short Line School, and New Martinsville School.
Rev. Dr. Vic Hunter L. Hunter, on behalf of New Martinsville’s Ministerial Association, encourages the Wetzel County Board of Education to further research providing universal free meals, beginning in the 2014 school year, to Wetzel County’s elementary schools, along with the Wetzel County Center for Children and Families. (Photo by Lauren Matthews)
Hunter explained that households not identified through the "direct certification" must fill out a paper or online application listing income and members of household, or submit their SNAP (food stamp) case number and members of household.
Hunter further reasoned that the SNAP program has been cut this month, which will cause further hardship on needy families. In combination with the cut of the program, the application process is sometimes found to be intimidating and off-putting, he said. Some families who actually qualify, might not get through the enrollment process.
Reverend Hunter explained that the community eligibility option, enacted as a result of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, is an innovative universal free meal service option designed to make it easier for low-income children to receive meals in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program.
On behalf of New Martinsville's Ministerial Association, Hunter requested that Wetzel County, beginning in 2014, apply to the state to participate in the Community Eligibility Option program for all elementary schools, including the Wetzel County Center for Children and Families preschool. Hunter said the amount needed to inaugurate this program would be less than $200,000, which amounts to slightly less than 15 percent of the $1.3 million surplus.
He further explained that such a move would include several benefits, including the fact that all the students receive all meals at no charge; paperwork for administrators and families is dramatically reduced, seeing as families affected no longer have to complete applications for free and reduced lunch, and school meal service is streamlined. Also, there would be several benefits to the health, education, and well-being of students. Reverend Hunter stated universal free meals programs have been shown to address issues of truancy and improve attendance.
Reverend Hunter further explained that many other programs receive universal support which are not based on student or family need, such as sports and music programs, and art and drama programs.
He said universal free meals would remove embarrassment or economic class consciousness and would help children and families who struggle with abject poverty and would help the hard working poor who struggle to make ends meet.
Furthermore, the move would eliminate bureaucratic barriers among those who sometimes struggle with "the system."
Finally, Reverend Hunter stated the universal free meal program would promote a sense of community and the support of the common good. By reaching out to all the children within the community, a tone of respect and mutuality would be set.
The information for the report was gained through work the area congregations have had with Open Door Community Meals, Helping Hand Food Pantry, Esther Crumbley Holiday Meals, Bags of Bounty Weekend Food Distribution, and First Friends Weekly Meals. He added that the ministerial association has many teachers and school administrators in their congregations who are familiar with school meals issues and concerns. Also, he gave credit to public records such as the Wetzel Chronicle and the West Virginia Department of Education Child Nutrition Department.
"I know Mr. (Board Vice President Bob) Patterson and I were speaking earlier," President Mike Blair stated. "There are some moves in the state for this direction anyway. We know it is being looked at." Blair encouraged Superintendent Dennis J. Albright and Reverend Hunter to further the discussion on the matter so they could further advise the board.