SUMMIT The cafeteria at Boyd County Middle School is crowded and noisy after school.
Students grab trays and shuffle through the serving line, picking up chicken sandwiches, french fries, apples, bananas and milk.
They crowd around tables to eat and talk, then return their trays and head to practice, rehearsal, club meeting or home.
It’s supper time at school.
More schools are adding supper to the meals they serve students, a sign of the increasing role of nutrition in education.
Boyd County is one of several northeastern Kentucky districts offering full after-school meals. Educators and school nutrition experts say the suppers serve two purposes — putting food in the stomachs of students who might not get enough to eat at home and keeping children nourished for after-school activities.
A recent report outlines the trend nationwide and in Kentucky, where 20,164 low-income children per day on average ate supper at school in October 2018.
Nationally, on that average October day, 1.3 million children ate supper at school.
The report, from the national anti-hunger advocacy group Food Research & Action Center, calls for streamlining requirements for after-school meal programs and investment in the after-school enrichment programs through which the meals are offered.
Kentucky has seen growth in after-school meals since they were first offered through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, according to Feeding Kentucky, a coalition of food banks across the state.
Locally, Boyd County and Fairview serve supper and Greenup County is poised to do so.
The districts serve the meals free to all children under a state regulation based on the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
That way they know at-risk students are taken care of and that other hungry children will get food. And the number of students eating the meals continues to grow. Boyd County fed 180 to 200 students per day last year, and the number is up to about 230 this year, according to district food service director Lani Thacker.
“Statistics show one in five in Kentucky are food deprived and we want to make sure they get a full meal before they go home,” Thacker said.
Boyd also serves supper at Catlettsburg Elementary to about 80 children per day, she said.
The meals are offered through the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which includes tutoring, homework help and enrichment activities.
Westwood probably has a higher food insecurity rate than the county as a whole, said Cindy Whitt, the food service director in the Fairview independent district. “We served 7,787 after-school meals last month alone. That’s not counting breakfast and lunch,” Whitt said.
Fairview offers the meals at its combined high school and middle school and at Fairview Elementary.
Some of the children who eat after school would otherwise stay hungry until the next day, she said. “One little boy said he is glad we have this food because there just isn’t that much food at his house. That just breaks your heart,” she said.
Even when there is enough to eat in low-income households, parents often opt for cheaper, less nutritious foods rather than costlier fresh produce and high-quality meats. To make sure children get better nutrition, Fairview offers a salad bar at the high school, chef’s salads at the elementary and bite-sized fresh fruit and vegetables like cherry tomatoes and broccoli florets, she said.
The report’s suggestions for streamlining meal programs include offering all meals through the same program. Currently, after-school meals are offered under a program with different requirements than the national school lunch program. That adds an additional, sometimes costly, layer of administrative work, the report concluded.
Whitt agrees. “Every program has different rules, different meal patterns. It gets a little confusing.”
For instance, after school regulations require meals to be eaten on site, with the exception that a child can take one item away. But under the school lunch program, a child conceivably could put the entire meal in a backpack and consume it later. “But if we have kids with no food at home, it’s hard to understand why they can’t take more,” she said.
Greenup County is developing a supper program for Wurtland and McKell middle schools, district business manager Rebecca Fyffe said. When that will happen remains undetermined but it could happen by December or January, she said.
It would be open to all children regardless of family income. The meals would be incorporated into the after-school programs at each school.
A long-term goal would be to expand to more schools, but a sticking point is that the meals themselves would be federally funded but the district would have to pay for the surrounding programs, Fyffe said.
Statewide, participation in after-school meals has been growing, with more than 354,000 meals served last October, according to FRAC. Kentucky fed an average of 4.6% of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch last year, just under the national average of 6.2%.
FRAC calls for Child Nutrition Reauthorization, which is currently before Congress, and more private and public funding. The reauthorization would enable streamlining eligibility requirements for the meals and more money would allow sponsors to reach more children with afterschool suppers.
The report can be found at the Food Research & Action Center’s website, frac.org.
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