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Dinner at School?

Dinner is the final frontier in school meals—could it work to your district’s advantage?

Among the 4,000 students enrolled in the Burlington, Vermont, school district, more than 60 languages are spoken. Despite their diversity, almost two-thirds of these students have something in common: They qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

According to Doug Davis, director of food service for the Burlington School Food Project, school meals are often the only nutritious ones that many of his students receive. "I've had kids telling me that they are so hungry because they haven't eaten since yesterday's school lunch," he says. "I have nurses and guidance counselors calling me on a weekly basis asking how we can help their students' families eat."

The national attention devoted to the prevalence of childhood obesity belies a growing challenge faced by schools across the country: Many of their students lack regular access to adequate and nutritious meals. They arrive cranky, inattentive, and sluggish. They face a much higher risk of a host of illnesses and chronic conditions, including diabetes and anemia.
In response, for the first time this fall, Burlington's schools will offer dinner-shepherd's pie made with locally sourced beef, vegetables grown in school gardens, homemade macaroni and cheese-to students participating in its after-school programs.

The popularity of a pilot dinner program started in three elementary schools in 2011 convinced Davis to expand the program to every school. The district is committed to ensuring that students are adequately and nutritiously fed. Its new motto: "Food Unites Us All."

Time for Dinner
At the same time, school breakfast and lunch programs, long at the center of districts' efforts to guarantee kids are well fed, continue to grow in scope. According to federal data, the number of free breakfasts served by schools every day has increased from 3.6 million in 1991 to 9.2 million in 2011, and the number of  daily free lunches in that period has gone from 10.3 million to 19.5 million.

These numbers reflect a nationwide increase in the number of families that do not have access to sufficient food. In 1999, "food insecurity" affected 31 million people. By 2010, the number had jumped to 48.8 million.

That year, President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reimburses schools that offer dinner to students enrolled in after-school academic enrichment programs. For a school to qualify, at least half of its students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The program is administered through the USDA's Children and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

Between 2000 and 2009, 13 states participated in a CACFP pilot dinner program. Based on its success and demand among schools, the program went national. As a result, schools and third-party providers will serve 21 million additional meals by 2015, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates.

The Burke County school district in Georgia will be serving up thousands of dinners this year. With 85 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch, Donna Martin, the director of the county's school nutrition program, undertook the effort to bring dinner to her students.

"Many of our students will eat lunch at 10:30 a.m., and then, because of long bus rides from after-school programs, won't get home until 8:00," Martin says. "That's too long for them to wait to eat dinner."

The high school football coach told her that his players weren't lasting through practices or games. He had sent a group of them for checkups to find out why, and the doctors told him that they weren't getting enough fuel: They were barely taking in 2,000 calories a day, and they needed at least 4,000 to 5,000 for their age and activity levels.

"Like so many of our kids, these players were going home to barely any food at all," says Martin. "A dinner for them would be fast food, a bowl of ramen noodles, or a Hot Pocket."

Eating Is Believing
Some critics say that schools should not assume responsibility for feeding children another meal. From their perspective, students should learn in the classroom and eat dinner at home with their family.

But in districts where dinner and other meals are served, complaints from parents are rare, according to nutrition directors. The popularity of such programs seems to speak for itself.

Connecticut's New Haven Public Schools, which started offering hot breakfast last year, serves daily meals to 90 percent of the district's qualifying students, a 35 percent increase over the previous year, says Timothy Cipriano, the district's executive director of food services. (He hasn't yet been able to institute a dinner program but does offer after-school snacks) Donna Martin's district, in Georgia, now has a waiting list for its after-school program for the first time.

The experiences of these administrators suggest that serving regular, nutritious meals can help schools improve students' academic success and overall well-being-and the research backs it up.

"It shifted the atmosphere in the schools, and principals love it because the kids are so well behaved," says Cipriano. "Once we realized the kids were miserable because they weren't eating at home, and we started feeding them breakfast, the whole dynamic of the schools changed."

Though meals are certainly not the only contributing factor, Cipriano proudly points out that New Haven's test scores on standardized exams have steadily risen for the past four years.

And in Georgia, players on the Burke County high school football team certainly think the meals make a difference: After winning their first state championship last season, some of the players gave their championship rings to the cafeteria workers who served them dinner.

—Fall 2012—

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