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After-School Programs Offer Not Just Learning Activities, But a Square Meal

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By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

You might imagine that when young people in after-school programs head home, they're pretty hungry after a long day. But it appears that an increasing number of them—especially those who lack adequate food at home—may already have eaten a healthy meal after the regular school day ended.

A recent story in The Suburban Times of Lakewood, Wash., highlighted one example of a local school district now providing free meals to students in an after-school program. The local Clover Park district, like many others, is tapping money from a federal funding stream expanded in 2010 by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

More than half of schools in the Clover Park district in the Lakewood area now offer their students the option of eating dinner at school while they participate in after-school programs, the story explains.The programs previously just included a small snack, but now have a fuller meal. In the district's Southgate Elementary, more than 100 students in the afterschool program participate in enrichment activities, such as choir, sports, or STEM (science, technology engineering, and math). Prior to the start of these activities each, students receive a meal, which, in their case, usually consists of a half sandwich, fruit, vegetable, and a carton of milk. (Of course, half a sandwich may not suffice for some kids.)

Nashville's Davidson County district is also now providing dinner to 400 students who take part in the city's After Zone Alliance after-school program, The Tennessean reports in a recent story. In Davidson County, 72 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, the story says.

As an Education Week story from last year explained, breakfast and lunch programs have long been a common part of the school day, but with the passage in late 2010 of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, all states now have the opportunity to serve students free after-school suppers, too. Money for the meals comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.The federal legislation expanded a pilot program, allowing all qualifying after-school programs to take part and get paid by the USDA for the dinners they serve.

Erik Peterson, the vice president of policy at the Afterschool Alliance, said word is beginning to spread more widely about the federal program.

"Even now, not all afterschool programs are aware that this program exists, but we've seen it gradually building in the last year," he told me in a phone interview. "We've seen a lot of groups trying to raise awareness and raise the profile [of the program]."

He added, "About 15 million young people are part of households that experience hunger on a regular basis."

For schools to qualify for the funding, at least 50 percent of students must be eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch. The school also must provide organized after-school enrichment activities, including everything from STEM programs to homework help or mentoring. You can find details here.

"Students are more likely to respond to activities if they have something in their bellies," said Peterson.

Not only are the students more responsive once they're there, they also may be more apt to attend afterschool programs. A study of Maryland's afterschool meal programs, produced by the organization Maryland Hunger Solutions, found that offering afterschool meals increased participation and retention rates for afterschool programs.

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