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West Virginia’s child health initiatives recognized

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When Richard Goff, executive director for the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Child Nutrition, answered the phone, the last thing he expected was for the White House to echo out from the other end.

“I thought it was a prank,” he said. “It’s not every day you get a call from the White House.”

However, it was not a prank, but rather an invitation to join Michelle Obama, students and school directors from across the country June 12 in Washington, D.C. to harvest the summer crop from the White House Kitchen Garden, which is a vegetable garden Obama planted on the South Lawn that helped fuel the dialogue that evolved into her Let’s Move! initiative.

Power of email

For Goff, the invitation to attend the White House event came mainly because West Virginia “has shown it can be done.”

He said the dominoes started falling after he sent an email to Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science and Public Interest, following her appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” discussing school lunch standards.

After replying to the listserv and sharing the school lunch standards the Mountain State implemented several years ago, Wootan asked Goff if she could pass his email along to the White House.

“You can serve healthy and nutritious meals and have a healthy, safe school environment school-wide,” he said.

When Goff became executive director of West Virginia’s Office of Child Nutrition in 2005, one of the first things he did was work with the (Board of Education) to get, what was then referred to as the Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Standards, implemented in the Mountain State.

The standards were research based by a group of experts without any influence from industry, he said.

After watching Katie Couric’s “Fed Up” documentary, Goff said it is “unbelievable how far West Virginia is ahead of the country.”

A contributing factor to staying ahead is policy, Goff said.

“West Virginia is probably one of the first states to have a statewide breakfast mandate, requiring public schools to offer breakfast in West Virginia,” he said.

A la carte food sales, which Goff said are permitted in almost every state throughout the country, are not permitted in West Virginia. In the Mountain State every child receives a unitized meal that meets the United State Department of Agriculture’s meal pattern.

“When kids come into West Virginia, child nutrition programs and school cafeterias, they get a unitized federally reimbursed school lunch or school breakfast,” he said. “We don’t sell individual items on a cart. Every meal in West Virginia that’s served, there’s a federal subsidy with it because it meets that strict meal pattern.

“There’s no federal subsidy with a la carte sales.”

Nutrition standards

When it comes to nutrition standards, Goff said students will not find chips, candy bars or sugar-laden snacks in vending machines or school stores because it’s not permitted.

If fundraising occurs during the school day, the food sold has to meet the strict nutrition standards. For classroom or school parties, the food distributed has to be commercially packaged or prepared on site.

Several years ago, Goff said a hazard analysis critical control point system was put in place that addressed food safety in the state. In terms of cafeterias, Goff said the Mountain State had some of the best in the country.

However, the system showed that regulating what food products came into the school systems could stand some improvement.

Not an easy journey

When the Institute of Medicine’s Recommended Standards were first adopted verbatim, Goff said West Virginia schools “got their eyes blacked a lot back then” by parents and community members who felt the new standards were too meddlesome.

Although there has been leveling off and progress made in the overall picture of child nutrition, Goff said there is still a ways to go. One of the remaining issues facing the Mountain State is childhood obesity.

“Sixty percent of our kids are needy, so they come from homes that have limited budgets,” he said. “When they go to the grocery story they’re confronted with feeding their family on a shoestring and sometimes the purchases aren’t the most healthy purchases.”

When it comes to setting West Virginia on the right path in child nutrition, Goff gives credit to his staff.

“I get to go talk but quite frankly it’s my staff,” he said. “I have 26 of the most dedicated people you could ever work with.

“They’re so passionate about children’s health.”

Not only are child health and nutrition programs implemented in schools, but also in child care centers, summer camps, HeadStart centers and family daycare sites, he said.

In addition to participating in the White House harvest, Goff will have the opportunity to talk to national media about what the Mountain State has done and the products of success.

Lora Gilbert, senior director of Food and Nutrition Services of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida, and Dora Rivas, executive director of the Food and Child Nutrition Services Department of Dallas Independent School, will also participate in the harvest with Goff.

On June 11, the West Virginia Department of Child Nutrition announced the start of its 2014 Summer Food Service Program, a “federal program that ensures children 18 years and under in low-income areas continue to receive free, nutritious meals during the summer when they do not have access to the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program,” according to a news release.