Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

April 3, 2013

Free lunch program worthy idea, but can it compare to a college buffet feast?

— Lawmakers in West Virginia have proposed an ambitious plan that seeks to give every child enrolled in school systems across the Mountain State a free school breakfast and lunch. The bill, which has been dubbed the “West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act,” would be financed through additional federal funding and private donations and grants.

The measure unanimously passed the state Senate last week. It aims to create partnerships in each of the state’s 55 counties that would help finance the free lunch program. The measure is now awaiting approval in the House.

It’s an interesting — and certainly good  — idea. Some will of course question where the state is going to get all of the money needed to finance this unique concept. Is there enough federal funding to cover it? Are there guaranteed private partners to help individual school systems in each of the state’s 55 counties? Those are questions that will have to be answered with time — provided that this measure also passes the House, and is ultimately signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Pilot projects providing free lunches for school children were recently held in both Mercer and McDowell counties. And both were an overwhelming success. Now the program could be expanded across the state.

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I didn’t get too excited about school lunches as a youngster attending school in McDowell County until the college years, and by then I was already a young adult. Back in elementary school, and even high school, I always packed my own lunch. Or make that Mom packed it for me. So I never really participated in the whole school lunch thing. Mom always ensured a full, warm meal, for me. I carried a thermos-type bottle with me to school each day that kept the food warm. Sometimes it was a hot-dog, sometimes a hamburger, and often times something else. And I always knew another warm, well prepared meal, was waiting for me when I got off the school bus, and ran up the small gravel road to our home. Mom never disappointed.

 Did I miss out on anything by not participating in the school lunch program? Probably not. As nothing beats a home cooked meal prepared by one’s mother. Mom is now gone. But I still  long for — and deeply miss — those great home-cooked meals that only a mother can prepare.

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But college was a whole different ball game. As I packed my bags, and relocated from McDowell County to the college campus setting, it also meant living away from home. Although home-cooked meals were still guaranteed on the weekend, Monday through Friday — breakfast through dinner — was courtesy of the then Concord College cafeteria. Concord didn’t reach university status until years after my graduation — but that’s OK. Because the cafeteria food was still pretty good during the non-university days. Breakfast wasn’t very creative, but it was always good.  You can’t really go wrong after all with eggs, bacon and sausage.

 Lunch was always a mixed bag of variety. It was buffet style — so you were able to pick and choose what you wanted. On most days you would always find something good.

On those days when the prepared meals didn’t quite excite me, there was also the traditional hamburger and hot-dog that you could fall back upon. I don’t know if it is the case anymore, but back in the day the cafeteria always had hamburgers and hot dogs available for both lunch and supper.

There were days when I would eat like a pig — the food was paid for after all as part of my larger tuition package. So why not enjoy a giant feast? And here’s the irony of that situation.

I stayed a slim and fit 170 pounds during those four years of college. In fact, I seemingly never gained an extra pound. Was it because of the food? Hardly. It was because of all of the exercise I got every single day walking to and from the dormitories and the other end of campus to the classrooms, library, student center and even the cafeteria.

Anyone who has been on the Campus Beautiful will affirm the fact that you can get plenty of good exercise just by walking to and from everything.

Is a school lunch as good as a college lunch?  Probably not — and I say that meaning no disrespect to the cooks who labor each morning and afternoon preparing a warm meal for school kids. Bust most school lunches aren’t cafeteria style — as was the case back in the college days.

I wish lawmakers the best of luck in pursuing this well-intended free lunch initiative in West Virginia. It will be interesting to see if the program can fully develop as intended.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com. Follow him @BDTOwens.

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