During the school year, lower-income students in the District of Columbia have long had access to free and reduced-price meals through the federally funded National School Lunch Program, as well as the School Breakfast Program. Children also have had access to federally funded snacks in afterschool programs. But community leaders recognized that breakfast, lunch and a small snack were often not enough. With so many parents working long hours and struggling to afford enough food for their families, D.C. children could benefit from a meal after school as well.
In addition to fighting hunger and obesity with nutritious food, federally funded meals draw children into safe and structured environments where they can learn and develop. The afterschool programs tap into a stable stream of federal funds, thereby also helping programs achieve greater financial stability.
Beginning in early 2009, a coalition of community organizations led by D.C. Hunger Solutions began working to get the District of Columbia added to the federal Afterschool Meals Program, which at the time was authorized to operate in just a handful of states. Thanks to concerted advocacy by the coalition and city leaders, D.C. was added to the Afterschool Meals Program in fall 2009 through the federal agriculture appropriations process. As a result, school-based afterschool programs and those in the community—such as youth development programs like YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and churches—now can serve a meal each weeknight to lower-income children in their care.
“A number of these organizations were already feeding children out of their own limited budgets,” says Ruth Perot, executive director of the Summit Health Institute for Research and Education, Inc. (SHIRE). “But working together, led by D.C. Hunger Solutions, one of our partners, we were able to leverage federal resources to provide suppers at afterschool programs in D.C. Public Schools and in the community, improving nutrition and health for thousands of lower-income children.”
Established in 1997, SHIRE is a nonprofit organization working with communities, government agencies, foundations, corporations and other institutions to address health disparities and aid vulnerable populations in attaining optimal health. Among the most vulnerable are residents of Wards 7 and 8 in southeast D.C. Home to one-fourth of D.C.’s population, these two predominantly Black communities have D.C.’s highest poverty and adult obesity rates; they are also “food deserts” with numerous convenience stores and fast food outlets but few places to shop for fresh, affordable produce. Of 43 full-service grocery stores across D.C., Wards 7 and 8 are home to only seven.
Through an extensive community engagement process with residents of Wards 7 and 8, SHIRE and six partner organizations have been working to change local policies to support healthy eating and active living through a Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities (HKHC) grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The District of Columbia is one of 49 sites around the country selected for HKHC, a national program of RWJF that advances community-based solutions that will help reverse the childhood obesity epidemic. The program focuses on changing policies and environments to support active living and healthy eating among children and families, placing special emphasis on reaching children who are at highest risk based on race or ethnicity, income or geographic location.
Implementing the federal Afterschool Meals Program has been one of the HKHC team’s top priorities.
“Through surveys, focus groups and key informant interviews, we heard resounding interest in the Afterschool Meal Program,” says Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions. “With parents working multiple jobs and nontraditional hours, more and more children are spending long hours in afterschool programs. They need food to keep them going. In many cases, there’s no healthy dinner for them to go home to.”
Not getting enough healthy food to eat is a fact of life for many in our nation’s capital. According to 2008-09 survey data, nearly 20 percent of households in the District of Columbia reported not having enough money in the previous 12 months to buy food for themselves or their family. Alarmingly, the rate was double among households with children.
Approximately 72,000 children attend D.C. public schools and public charter schools, with more than 75 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch. In spring 2010, with guidance from D.C. Hunger Solutions, D.C. Public Schools piloted the Afterschool Meal Program at 12 schools to prepare for a full-scale roll out beginning that fall. In school year 2010–11, D.C. Public Schools began serving meals at afterschool programs at 99 schools. At afterschool programs across the city, a growing number of children are also receiving meals.
The Afterschool Meal Program provides meals throughout the school year, including weekends, holidays and school breaks. All meals meet USDA nutritional guidelines and include all of the following: one serving of protein, one serving of grains, two servings of fruits and/or vegetables, and one serving of milk. On a typical day in D.C. Public Schools, that often translates to a turkey and cheese sandwich on wheat bread accompanied by fresh broccoli or cucumber sticks, sliced apples or pears, and low fat milk. Depending on the length of the afterschool program, the meal may be served immediately when the students arrive after school or later, at regular dinner time.
On December 13, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law. Among other things, the new law expands the federal Afterschool Meals Program to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
To qualify for federal meal funding, afterschool programs must also offer educational or enrichment activities.
“So, the supper program is not only feeding hungry children, it’s helping to keep them safe, learning and positively engaged during the afterschool hours,” says Perot. “And as supper boosts enrollment in after-school programming, we’ll be able to reach even more children.”
While the need to address disparities in care is well known, few strategies for reducing disparities have been studied systematically.
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