The Times West Virginian

April 5, 2013

Who is going to pay for all these free meals for state students?

Times West Virginian

— A bill before the West Virginia Legislature focusing on feeding all students free meals for breakfast and lunch is causing some concern here in Marion County, as well as perhaps in counties all around the state.

Who is going to pay for all these free meals?

The West Virginia Senate hopes that instituting public-private funding partnerships will enable West Virginia to become the first state in the nation to give free breakfast and lunches to all school children.

This is a bill that certainly deserves consideration, as do several other education-related bills. We all should realize these meals are probably the only meals some Marion County students receive each day. That’s a sad but true statement, and it’s not only true in Marion County but in most if not all other state counties as well.

But we feel sure the first question that comes into most minds about this bill is the same question we expressed in the second paragraph. Who is going to pay for all these free meals?

The program would initially focus on elementary schools with hopes to expand it to all students as funds become available.

Superintendent Gary Price said that in Marion County alone, providing this service for elementary schools would cost $25,000. And that’s not for the entire year. That total is just for a single month.

And if the county couldn’t come up with enough donations, the board of education would have to dig deep into its budget to come up with the money.

Of course, the state is reimbursed by the federal government for every meal it serves, but the levels of reimbursement vary depending on the economic status of a child’s parents. It’s interesting to note that more than half the children in the state qualify for free or reduced-price meals, but only 38 percent of all students are eating breakfast at school.

The West Virginia Senate is naturally mulling the fact that with a modest increase in meal participation, the state could bring in millions of dollars more in federal funding. But there’s an ambitious aspect of the bill that requires every county in the state to set up foundations to solicit private donations. And every dollar in donations must be used to purchase food.

While the intent of this bill cannot be disputed, we see it possibly causing more problems than it might solve. What happens when the foundation to solicit private donations runs into problems? Will more donations be sought down the road?

As Price said in a statement that appears to sum up the entire situation, every one of these ideas (the free meals and several others) sounds like a wonderful idea. You really can’t argue against them — but they all have price tags on them.

We also wonder that if the free food plan is such a good one, why hasn’t it been attempted by other states long before now?