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Devoted to Feeding Children: Richard Goff's Story

It’s not hard to get Rick Goff fired up about his work. He is passionate about finding solutions to better nourish children in West Virginia and he is extremely proud of the efforts he has led as Director of Child Nutrition for the past eight years. He values the role that the Alliance for a Healthier Generation has played in supporting schools as they build strong wellness councils and implement new policies around nutrition and physical activity.

“Amy File once said to me, ‘We are all climbing the same mountain,’” said Goff. “And I quote her often on that. We cannot have enough people like that here—people that sincerely want to help the kids.”

Goff believes that recent times have been “the best time to be associated with feeding kids.” He is surprised but grateful that his career has led him to this point. Twenty-eight years ago, he began as an auditor for the Office of Child Nutrition, but was quickly promoted to Assistant Director. He remembers the moment that changed his life: “I saw a little boy carrying his baby sister down towards one of our summer feeding sites. I watched as he hid the baby behind a tree while he got his food. He took the milk back to his baby sister.” He realized then that feeding children was not just a job—it was going to be his mission to reduce hunger in West Virginia’s children.

His proudest achievement to date is the passage of WV SB633, the groundbreaking Feed to Achieve legislation, which he co-wrote with State Senator and Majority Leader John Unger. This bill passed with almost unanimous support in both the West Virginia House and Senate in 2013 and will be fully enacted in 2015.

The bill establishes nonprofit organizations that will raise money to help pay for meals not reimbursed by the Federal Government. Goff believes that companies and foundations will step up to the plate. He said, “People want to donate to kids in need. I want this to be as well-known as the Jerry Lewis telethon!” Goff hopes that the new funding strategy will help build the infrastructure to feed kids during out-of-school time as well. “Summer feeding provides a crucial safety net, especially in rural communities,” he said. “We really need mobile feeding sites. We are on spring break now and sure, some of our kids are off having fun at the beach, but many of our kids are sitting at home right now, hungry. I want solutions.”

Although more than 60 percent of students in West Virginia are eligible for free meals, only 25 percent take advantage of the free breakfast program at their schools—a fact that garnered support for the passage of Feed to Achieve. And those numbers have barely moved over the past 30 years. West Virginia became the first state in the nation to require all schools to offer breakfast. “We know breakfast is just as important as math and English. Some kids have no parents at home, or they live in neighborhoods with meth labs or violence. And we expect them to go to school and learn? We can’t control all of that but we sure as heck can offer them a good breakfast.”

But Goff recognized that there is a difference between offering and really serving breakfast. Over the past three years, Goff and his office have worked to achieve community eligibility status so that some districts could offer universal breakfast without all of the paperwork. They have implemented effective strategies such as breakfast in the classroom, breakfast after first period for older students, and “grab and go” breakfasts that reduce stigma and offer widespread access. Some schools employ multiple strategies. “Kids want to eat breakfast,” said Goff. “You just have to make it easy.” These efforts are starting to pay off. Statewide breakfast participation numbers have increased from 30 to 40 percent since 2011. He hopes that the full rollout of Feed to Achieve will lead to big increases in breakfast and lunch participation as it becomes the norm for every student to eat two meals at school every day.

Goff understands that it is not enough to address food security and access; he also needs to pay attention to proper nutrition and adequate physical activity for West Virginia’s students. “In this economy, people look for cheap food, not healthy food.” He has fought hard for the last ten years to improve the food and beverage options available to students. West Virginia was one of the first states in the nation to adopt competitive food guidelines for schools in 1992, which limited the sugar and fat content in snack foods sold to students.

In 2008 the standards were updated to align with the 2007 Institute of Medicine Guidelines, putting the district in a perfect position to implement the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards effective July 1, 2014. The West Virginia guidelines go beyond nutrition standards for school meals and competitive foods to also address marketing, fundraising, staffing, local wellness policies, accountability, and compliance.

The Office of Child Nutrition’s book, Let’s Party, helps schools successfully transition to healthier school celebrations. Because of the strong standards already in place, schools in West Virginia are already in compliance with the new standards. “We don’t permit the sale of a la carte items, junk food vending, or unhealthy fundraising in West Virginia. We said ‘no longer are schools going to balance their checkbook on the backs of students’ health.”

The only thing that threatens Goff’s vision for feeding children across the state is securing adequate funding. With the help of a grant writer and the Feed to Achieve Foundation, Goff hopes to fund the rest of his vision. In addition to securing mobile feeding sites during the summer months, he also strives to help all districts cook most, if not all, foods onsite from scratch. He is also a big supporter of farm-to-school efforts and wants to be able to source even more food from local farms. “I know we have made a dent in hunger here but we have to keep pushing forward while protecting the changes we have made.”