At some schools and community centers across the country, baked chicken, steamed broccoli, apple slices, whole-wheat rolls, and milk are on the menu—but not just at lunch.
While breakfast and lunch programs have long been a common part of the school day, all states now have the opportunity to serve students free after-school suppers, too, with the money for the meals coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A few states have offered supper for years as part of a pilot program, but the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which passed late that year, expanded the program, allowing all qualifying after-school programs to take part and get paid by the USDA for the suppers they serve. In 2011, tens of thousands more suppers were served at a time when child poverty is on the rise—although getting programs started can be an undertaking that many child-care centers and after-school sites, especially those located apart from schools, aren’t equipped to handle.
For many of the students who eat those meals, food outside of school breakfasts and lunches is scarce, said Lois Hazelton of the New York Department of Health, who oversees the program in her state. It was one of the first states eligible to serve supper, starting about 10 years ago.
“We knew that there were kids out there who were going home to potentially no supper, or not enough supper, or not a nutritious supper,” Ms. Hazelton said. On average, she added, 140,000 students eat free suppers every day in her state through the USDA program.
‘Safety Net’ for Families
USDA research found that in 2010, an average of one in six Americans had difficulty finding enough money to buy food.
“We talk about food insecurity,” said Anne Sheridan, the Maryland director of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, a project of the Washington-based nonprofit group Share Our Strength, which works to end childhood hunger. The organization has helped raise awareness about the program and get programs off the ground in Maryland and other states.
“In the state of Maryland, there are well over 200,000 children who are food insecure. This [program] is providing a safety net to them,” Ms. Sheridan said. “It’s also a nice family environment.”
That’s because unlike traditional school meals, with students toting trays through a line and loading up compartments with grains, veggies, a protein, and milk, at sites across the country, the supper program is often a family-style affair, with students helping themselves from large platters.
The USDA has specific nutrition requirements for the meals served: at least two kinds of vegetables or fruit, whole-grain bread, a meat or another protein (including eggs or cheese), and fat-free or low-fat milk. Meals are generally simpler than school lunches, with hot sandwiches such as grilled cheese making frequent appearances.
Students are intermingled as they eat, instead of separated by grade or classroom.
Is there a chance some students might end up eating two dinners?
It’s a legitimate concern, Ms. Sheridan said, especially because so many children are grappling with childhood obesity at the same time other American children are going hungry.
But, she said, “research shows that having reliable access to a meal is one of the biggest things you can do to prevent obesity. When you don’t know where your next meal comes from do you eat every meal that comes to you? I bet you do.”
Lessons on the Side
At one Boys & Girls Club location in Seattle, students help set up tables and chairs before meals, some help serve the food, and they all get a side serving of nutrition information, club director Rick Dupree said.
For example, students learn about the calorie and cholesterol count in their chicken sandwiches or their yakisoba—a Japanese noodle dish—compared with fast-food meals.
Younger students, who often eat lunch around 10:30 in the morning, get their suppers about an hour after arriving at Mr. Dupree’s center, the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse and Teen Center at Rainier Vista, then do an hour of homework. Older students do homework first, then eat.
The center serves up to 2,500 meals a month, Mr. Dupree said.
“This program is as important as anything we do,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Seattle-area Boys & Girls Clubs.
The site has a kitchen with the capacity to serve all those meals, and it passed the required health inspection. Smaller after-school child-care sites may not be equipped the same way, said Linda Stone, the food-policy director at the Children’s Alliance, an advocacy group in that state. She has been working with the state education department to simplify the application process and spread awareness about the program. The program has grown more slowly than she had hoped.
A year into that work, only about 13,000 suppers are served per month across the state, she said.
Getting Meals Delivered
Across Maryland, which began serving USDA-funded suppers in 2009, more than 10,000 meals are served every evening. A majority of those are provided in Baltimore.
The Family League of Baltimore City coordinates the suppers, provided by caterers to about 200 sites throughout the city, including 81 schools, said the group’s president and chief executive officer, Kevin Keegan.
Catering cuts out the need for the sites to have kitchens, or for the staff to prepare meals, and the Family League takes over much of the paperwork required for the program. The USDA provides a reimbursement of $2.77 for each supper served, which just covers the agency’s costs for providing them, Mr. Keegan said.
At each site, food arrives in bulk hot or cold containers, employees of the after-school programs help serve it, and the containers are rinsed out and set aside for caterers to collect when they drop off meals the next day.
USDA rules say that eligible after-school programs must include education or enrichment activities and be located in an area where at least half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.
“You can’t have just sports teams, but it could be any program where kids sign up and have homework help,” Mr. Keegan said. “With the poverty rate in Baltimore, and the lack of availability of healthy foods in Baltimore, some of the kids just wouldn’t be eating supper without this program.”
That’s also the scenario in rural coastal Oregon, said Rhonda Hoffine, the food-services director for the North Bend, Coquille, and Reedsport districts, which have about 1,800 students combined.
Of those, about 1,200 eat supper daily, she said. Unemployment is high in the area, where once-active timber mills have closed.
The district relied on a related USDA after-school snack program for years before the supper program began, but it was apparent students weren’t getting enough to eat even with those extra nibbles.
“The kids were saying, ‘Don’t you have something more to eat than this?’ ” Ms. Hoffine recalled. The USDA reimbursement doesn’t quite cover all the labor costs to keep the program going, but the program is valuable enough that the school districts have been willing to pay for that out of their general funds, Ms. Hoffine said.
Before the USDA program expanded, the Spokane, Wash., Boys & Girls Clubs served suppers on their own dime, but they were nothing like the 350 meals a day the agency now serves at three sites, operations director Alisa Mnati said. Food often came from food banks or stores that sell dented, canned foods and past-their-prime bread products. Milk wasn’t in the budget.
“Yesterday, we did taco salad. The taco shell was a whole grain taco shell, there was fresh tomato, fresh lettuce, ground beef, and grapes on the side,” Ms. Mnati said. “Children have a right to eat healthy.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as More After-School Programs Are Serving Up Suppers