You've heard about free school lunches and breakfasts, but how about school suppers? In California, dinners are now being served to students at almost 200 schools.
These California schools are joining a new federally-funded effort to provide three meals a day to children from low-income families who also attend after-school programs across the state.
When Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act near the end of 2010, it allowed after-school programs to receive federal funding for supper at the same rate provided for free and reduced-price school lunches. To be eligible, the after-school program must have an educational component, such as homework tutoring or a class on health and nutrition, and at least half of students served must qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
San Diego Unified is rolling out its supper program and is currently serving dinner to about 1,650 students, which will rise to about 2,100 in March, said Gary Petill, director of Food Nutrition Services. By the middle of next year, he hopes to expand the program to 13,000 students. His district is offering only cold meals, such as sandwiches along with fruits and vegetables, but they are made fresh each day.
One problem in initiating the program was figuring out how to refrigerate the food, he said, because schools typically lock their kitchens after school is out. The district decided to use schools' "milk coolers," which are refrigerator boxes on wheels and are more accessible.
"We've heard through the principals that the kids really love it," Petrill said. Before the supper program was introduced, he added, children would have to wait for four or five hours for their parents to pick them up with only a snack, such as cheese and crackers, to sustain them. After-school instructors have also been positive, he said, and parents have called and sent letters in support of the program. One parent, who was struggling financially, told Petrill that the school-provided meals for her children saved her $100 a week in grocery costs.
In some cases, the more substantial meal replaces the traditional snack, which has been offered for many years in the afternoon to students participating in after-school programs. Other programs include both supper and snack.
Across the country, tens of thousands of children participated in the supper program in 2011, according to a recent article by Education Week. California's program began in October 2011.
The supper program is for children in low-income families who are at risk of not getting their daily nutritional needs met, said Laurie Pennings, manager of the Child and Adult Care Food Program unit at the California Department of Education. Her unit is responsible for implementing the program in California. "They are in care all day and breakfast, lunch, and snack are not enough to keep them healthy. And unhealthy, hungry kids don't learn."
Students eligible for free or reduced-price meals often receive breakfast at 7:30 a.m. and lunch around 11 a.m. By the time school is out, they are hungry for more than crackers and cheese. Yet their parents might not pick them up until 6 p.m. or even 7 p.m.
A survey in 2010 by the United States Department of Agriculture found that 15% of American households were "food insecure."
Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento was one of the first districts to join the program. Families facing food insecurity is a problem at a number of the district's schools, officials said.
"There is a need," said Michelle Drake, director of Food and Nutrition Services for Elk Grove. "There are hungry families and hungry children. Just because they get breakfast and lunch doesn't mean they get dinner [at home]. This program helps the child get a nutritious meal rather than Top Ramen or something." Elk Grove is providing suppers to about 3,200 of its students.
"It's a pretty daily fact for many of our families," agreed Dorothy Stoppelmann, principal at Union House Elementary in Elk Grove. "They struggle to put enough food on the table for their kids."
The federally funded supper program allows districts to offer a cold or hot version for the same cost. Like San Diego, Elk Grove has opted for the cold version because of increased staff costs involved in providing hot food. Students are offered turkey sandwiches, chicken drumsticks, or chef salad, along with fresh fruit like apples and vegetables, such as jicama and carrot sticks. Each meal is served with milk.
A favorite dinner involves students making their own wrap, Drake said. They get a whole-wheat tortilla and can fill it, for example, with chicken fajita meat, black beans, corn, cheese, and salsa. There is more than one variety of the wrap, she added.
"We try to liven up a menu that could become monotonous," Drake said. "We don't want sandwiches every night." Feedback from students and parents has been positive, she added.
After-school programs run by private organizations, such as churches, the YMCA, or Boys & Girls Clubs, can also receive federal funding for supper. in addition to those on 183 school sites, there are currently 46 such programs offering supper to children in California.
Kay Trail, outreach coordinator at Antioch Church in the San Francisco Bay Area, operates a program for about 40 neighborhood children. "We have so many families struggling at or below the poverty line," she said.
The church offers cold and hot meals, such as chicken tamales with carrots. To fulfill the education requirement for the after-school program, the church offers lessons on nutrition based on curriculum materials provided for free by John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek.
Often low-income parents will give their kids a $1 "value meal" at a fast-food restaurant for dinner because they can't afford the prices of fresh produce and meat, Trail said. She sees the supper program as a way to not only provide food, but to also teach children about healthy eating.
For example, Trail noticed that many of the children were dumping their apples in the garbage. When she asked them why, they said they didn't like the peel. So she showed them how to peel the apple and asked them to try it again.
"Fruit is now so crazy-expensive that moms don't set out bowls of fruit when they are struggling financially," she said. "The kids are used to canned fruit dripping in fructose."
By introducing a whole fruit every day, she is hoping that the children will learn to enjoy fruit and choose it for lunch at school.
Drake says principals in her district have seen little waste because the children have been exposed to similar food in the lunch program. What they have noticed, she said, is kids hiding food, such as apple slices, so they can take them home for a little brother or sister.
Drake says she wishes the district could do more for its students and their families. The school supper "is just one more way to help those who need it," she said.
For more information on how to add a meal to an after-school program, check out this guide from the California AfterSchool Network.
Additional information on the Child and Adult Care Food Program is also available here from the Food Research and Action Center
For a background paper on how the Afterschool Meals Program was implemented in 100 schools in Washington D.C., see this report.
Sue Frey is a program associate at EdSource. She researches and writes parent guides, issue briefs, voter guides, articles for EdSource and reports and informational material. Read more of her work, and other pieces, at EdSource.