Breakfast, lunch and dinner: the three essential meals of the day, so essential that they often become a part of a mindless daily routine. We spend minutes or hours cooking meals, and typically don’t think about the act of eating dinner itself, and how some may not have a dinner every night. When we sit at our tables and eat, we may forget about our counterparts in the community who have nothing to eat — but the fact is, not everyone gets a dinner.
With 50 percent of Alachua County placed on free and reduced meals, Maria Eunice, Alachua County Schools’ Food and Nutrition Services director, recognizes the urgency for a proper dinner for students. To fix this problem, Alachua County has crafted an after-school supper program, funded by the US Department of Agriculture, to provide nutritious meals to students across the county.
The program began at Norton Elementary School in 2014. After proving successful, the board decided to expand the program, adding 14 sites the following year in 2015 and an additional 11 sites in 2016. Now in its third year, the program serves 26 sites and a total of 1767 meals a day. They serve 67 meals a day, and hope for further expansion in the future, as long as there continues to be a need for it, Eunice said.
The program serves hot and cold meals that are nutritious yet tasty, curated by a chef and dietician, Eunice explained. In fact, meals are only allowed in the program if they achieved at least an 80 percent approval rating during an extensive taste test. Aside from the obvious desire to supply children with proper nutrition, Eunice said the menu must also be satisfying to students, so that they actually enjoy what they’re eating.
Meals range from pastas to wraps to chicken popper bowls, the program’s most popular item. Students eat supper at any time from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., depending on the location. If students eat immediately after school, they are often given a snack before they go home, to ensure that there isn’t too great of a gap between their last meal and breakfast the next morning.
While some students do opt out of the supper program, Eunice acknowledges just how necessary it is to many of their peers. Whether a family is having a difficult time providing for their children or has a busy schedule and can’t eat until late in the evening, the supper program satisfies the needs of all different students in different situations. “The program allows the students to get what they need for the day and enjoy time with their families,” Eunice said. “And then they can just go to bed.”
One of the new sites for the 2016-2017 school year is The Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County. The organization provides programs that promote healthy lifestyles to 3,600 students, ages 6-18, across three units. The Boys and Girls Club focuses on preventative-based teachings that educate students about drugs, alcohol and even dating, while still encouraging their academics, artistic abilities and recreational time.
The organization places extreme emphasis on healthy living, so the supper program was a natural addition, said Scott Monnet, President and CPO of The Boys and Girls Club Alachua County. Monnet said he deems nourishment a foundational block for a successful child, which is why the program is so important to him. “We’ve never been in a position where kids have said they weren’t eating at home, but we can make assumptions,” Monnet said.
These “assumptions” are still rooted in fact, as kids all over Alachua County go home hungry, daily.
While Monnet is excited to provide meals to so many students, he also recognizes the change that can be sparked from community support. “It’s just another perfect example of great collaboration and communication,” Monnet said.
Westwood Middle school is another example of this collaboration, as they too have added the after-school supper program to their site this year, serving 100 students per day. Kathy Schmitt, Westwood Middle school cafeteria manager, is proud to be involved with the program. And she isn’t the only one enthused. “Our kids get really excited about it because they’re getting something different every day,” Schmitt said. “It’s not leftovers; everything is cooked fresh.”
Students eat their hot meal between 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. and indulge in a snack between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m. before going home around 6 p.m., Schmitt said. The program serves students at the perfect time, before they head home. As a result, the kids are more alert in the morning. “They don’t seem as hungry coming into breakfast,” Schmitt said. “Kids used to come in and want multiple breakfasts because they were just so hungry.”
Now, students go home full, which takes pressure off of busy parents to cook a balanced and nutritious meal. The program also decreases the chance that kids will eat fast-food as their final meal of the night and ultimately provides a healthy alternative to families that might not be able to give their children the proper nutrition.
Parents all over Alachua County are appreciative of the program, especially at Idylwild Elementary School, where some families have very little food at home. “I know of students that just don’t have anything to eat at home,” Kathy Reynolds, Idylwild Elementary cafeteria manager, said. While this may be heartbreaking news for some, Reynolds explained that the supper program has really made all the difference in the students’ after-school life. Students are being provided with healthy and nutritious meals, but above all, are going home full.
With over 200 students participating in the Alachua County after-school supper program at Idylwild Elementary School daily, many parents have approached the staff to thank them. Reynolds admires how much the “parents really care.” Many families have expressed their gratitude, which only greater proves the impact that the program has had on their lives.
Alachua County found a need, and they met it. And the resulting success is expressed on students’ faces all across the county. “It just warms my heart to be a part of an organization that is doing good for the community,” Reynolds said.
For more information about the After School Meal Program and other ways students can access affordable, appealing and nutritious foods, visit the Alachua County Schools’ Food & Nutrition Services website at acpsfood.com. Also, you can learn more about the AfterSchool Meal Program here.