Schools Are Expanding Their Free Lunch Programs To Include Dinner, Too

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

A student receives her afternoon snack at Kingsley Elementary School, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, more than one million students across the United States have received dinner and an after-school snack as part of an unprecedented pilot program introduced in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The program has been received well so far. School officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest school district and one of the first participants in the U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program, are now planning to double the number of students who receive nutritious after-school meals. The ultimate goal: to serve every student in the school district, especially those from low-income communities who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

‘‘When kids are hungry, they don’t pay attention,’’ Bennett Kayser, a member of LAUSD’s Board of Education, told the Associated Press. The board announced the expansion earlier this week. ‘‘This is something that should have started years ago.’’

While participation in the national breakfast and lunch program eclipses that of the newly launched dinner program, schools still served nearly 90 million more suppers to students last year than in previous years. The program counts among a host of offerings provided to students by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, including a Food to School pipeline that aids local famers in getting fresh produce to school cafeterias, community gardens, and culinary education.

In a country where the percentage of children considered obese has more than doubled in the last 30 years, dinner prepared under National School Lunch Program guidelines can further expose children to the wonders of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat fluid milk, while helping them cut back on meat and high-salt, high-sugar food after school hours.

The high-salt, high-sugar meals that are commonly found in corner stores and fast food restaurants often lack the nutrients essential for cognitive development — including calcium, iron, Vitamin C, and zinc. Plus, data says 90 percent of meals packaged at home often contain deserts, chips, and sweetened nondairy products.

That’s why serving free school dinner has become increasingly popular in recent years, especially as conversation about obesity has delved into matters of economics, public health, academic achievement, and general life outcomes. As previous studies have shown, quality time around the dinner table can go a long way. Data compiled by Colorado-based nonprofit Healthy Learning Paths says that children who don’t eat dinner regularly consume alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs 61 percent more often than their counterparts who enjoy an evening meal.

Children living in low-income communities, who may not consume healthy food beyond what they receive in school, stand to benefit the most from an expansion of the supper program, especially if they’re staying on campus after hours of regular instruction. For parents overwhelmed by the demands of an unconventional work schedule, dinners provided by after-school programs can lift some burden off their shoulders.

“What’s kind of unique about it is these are creative ways to help districts close the achievement gap,” Madison School District food services director Steve Youngbauer told the Madison State Journal in 2012. The Wisconsin-based school system rolled out an after-school dinner program similar to LAUSD’s that officials said provided students with an alternative to the snacks that they gravitate toward once the school bell rang.

In recent years, GOP lawmakers and national groups have spoken out against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, even going as far as attempting to dismantle parts of the legislation. Some Republicans have called the law too demanding of school districts. Other critiques include that of the amount spent to change school menus and implement nutrition and community farming programs.

In turn, proponents of the policy continue to cite the long-term benefits of healthy food consumption for children. Previous studies — including one that surveyed nearly 12,000 students between the fifth and eighth grade — have shown that balanced meals chock-full of nutrients can spur academic achievement and curb delinquency during a period when a youngster’s mind and body undergoes its most rapid development.

“Children need to get fed when they’re at after-school programs in the evening,” Alex Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a program of the Food Research and Action Center, told ThinkProgress. “It’s not only an investment in the health of the child but it’s a way for us to make sure that he or she can take full advantage of the valuable enrichment activities.”