KANSAS CITY — Too often it is after the fact that teachers discover their students are worrying less about math and reading and more about where the next meal comes from.
So Doug White, principal of Garfield Elementary School in inner-city Kansas City, was relieved when his school, like many across the country, began offering dinner to students enrolled in after-school child-care or tutoring programs.
With breakfast and lunch already provided for poor students, many children now are getting all their meals at school.
"When you know about those situations those kids are bringing into the school and we are asking them to sit down and concentrate and do their work, and they might be hungry and we haven't been made aware of it yet — we definitely want to do everything we can to help the kids," White said.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010, provides federal funds for the after-school dinner program in areas where at least half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Before the change, the program was limited to 13 states and the District of Columbia. Most states had only provided money for after-school snacks.
Since the change, districts have started rolling out dinner programs both in states newly able to offer them and states like Missouri, where funding was available previously but districts didn't always know about it. The Congressional Budget Office estimates there will be almost 21 million additional suppers served by 2015 and that number will rise to 29 million by 2020. The added spending would total about $641 million from 2011 to 2020.
Advocates for the poor praise the program, but there have been complaints from conservatives who question whether the schools should be feeding kids three meals a day. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh asked on-air in November, "Why even send the kids home?"
Dinners are funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Child and Adult Care Food Program, which also helps feed people enrolled in child and adult day care programs and emergency shelters. The number of dinners served through the program has grown over the past decade, although the department doesn't currently report the breakdown of how many meals are served through after-school programs specifically.
"The USDA has done a lot to streamline the requirements and made it easier for people to apply and participate," said Crystal FitzSimons, who researches and advocates for after-school meals for the anti-hunger nonprofit Food Research and Action Center. "Before, we did outreach in the states that allowed it. There were programs participating. But I think it has gained a lot of momentum and a lot of visibility because it has been expanded nationwide."
In California, the Oakland Unified School District started a pilot program in October, dishing up dinner in 11 of its 101 schools. The district plans to expand the program to 19 more schools by the end of the school year.
"There are some of these kids who you know just don't eat when they go home," said Jennifer LeBarre, nutrition services director for the district, where about 70 percent of its 38,000 students qualify for subsidized meals.
In Tennessee, Memphis City Schools are serving about 14,000 after-school meals daily. About 84 percent of the district's 110,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Kate Lareau has mixed feelings about the program even though her first-grader enjoys eating dinner at her Memphis elementary school's after-school program. As a grant-writer for a nonprofit that works with people in a south Memphis housing project, Lareau said she can afford to feed her daughter, but knows that a lot of children go without.
"Do we need to provide all three meals? I'm not sure," she said. "But I personally know children who don't get any food after they get home. I don't want those kids to be hungry for sure."
The district began offering the meals, featuring entrees such as Cobb salads and ham and cheese sandwiches, in 70 of its 200 schools in November and plans to expand to the program in 30 more schools by year's end.
"In a perfect world, June and Ward would grab the Beav and Wally and give them a great big breakfast with a hug and kiss and send them off," said Tony Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the district. "There would be pot roast wafting through the living room when they show up at home. But that's not how it is."
Besides addressing hunger, the program also draws children into after-school programs that can help children learn, said FitzSimons.
That was the case in Kansas City, where 86 percent of students are so poor they qualify for government-subsidized meals. The district expanded its after-school meal program into Garfield and six other schools in January. The district now serves dinner to about 1,700 students in 18 schools each weeknight, about 10 percent of the district's enrollment, said Ellen Cram, the district's director of child nutrition services.
"If that meal gets the parent and child in the door for the opportunity to study I'm happy to offer that carrot, so to say," Cram said over the din of elementary students eating a dinner of turkey and cheese sandwiches, baby carrots and raisins. "Offering this supper meal is just huge for the parent. They know they've got something good, basic here to start with. So if they are going home to a meal of pasta then at least here they had milk, they had a fruit, a vegetable."