By Bob Weaver

The U.S. House of Representatives' version of the federal budget for this fiscal year could significantly shrink a program that has expanded free meals to public school students, especially in West Virginia.

The state Department of Education and the Food Research & Action Center, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-hunger nonprofit, say that could happen if the Community Eligibility Provision is changed.

Under the current provision, schools and school districts can serve free meals to all students — and be reimbursed for a majority of those meals — so long as 40 percent of students automatically qualify for free meals.

West Virginia is a state that poverty has continued to rise.

Calhoun Schools would be adversely affected if proposed federal budget cut to the free lunch program is carried through.

In Calhoun County, 60%-70% of students had qualified for free or reduced meals.

Kids Count says at least 30% of Calhoun children are living below the poverty level.

Calhoun Superintendent of Schools Kelli Whytsell did not respond to a public information request on how the change might affect Calhoun students, or report on financials for the county food program.

The proposed budget suggests a higher threshold of students to "better target program resources to lower-income households."

Michele Blatt, an assistant superintendent in the state education department, told the West Virginia Board of Education on Thursday that increasing the provision's threshold to 60 percent would mean 337 public schools no longer would be able to use it to offer free meals to all of their students, poor or not. That's about half the state's public schools.

For three consecutive years, the nonprofit has ranked West Virginia No. 1 in the nation for school breakfast participation. 46 of West Virginia's 55 counties participate at least partially and that, in 19 of those 46 counties, all schools participate.

Many children in West Virginia rely on school lunches as their biggest meal of the day.

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