A small meal waits for students after school at Garfield Elementary: a cup of yogurt, string cheese, a bag of grapes, graham crackers.
It’s enough protein and nutritious fuel to get kids in the after-school program through their homework, enough to tide them over until a more complete meal later.
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As fourth-grader Ja’Niah Devers puts it: “It helps you think harder and be healthy.”
But for some at this school, where 96 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, this light supper may be the only thing they eat until they return to the school cafeteria the next morning.
Garfield is one of 18 schools in the Kansas City district that now serve a third meal each day to students attending after-school activities such as tutoring programs. The district started offering the supper to students in October and expanded the program in January to include nearly 1,700 students — 10 percent of the district.
Faculty and staff at Garfield know some of the students often don’t have enough food at home and rely on the school for most of their nutrition.
“Families say it’s such a burden off of them when they pick their children up and know they’ve already eaten,” said Maria Grimoldi, site coordinator for the Local Investment Commission (LINC) after-school program at Garfield, which serves roughly 100 kids the light supper. “We have several homeless families. This helps them.”
More schools across the country are offering similar programs, using funds available through the federal Child Adult Care Food Program.
The menu rotation in KC’s program, funded through state and federal reimbursements, includes hoagies, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, fried chicken and Cobb salad, along with fresh fruits or vegetables.
“It’s not meant to take place of dinner at home,” said Garfield principal Doug White. “But for some of our kids, we know it does.”
In Missouri, an estimated one in four children doesn’t have enough food at home to lead a productive, healthy life, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization. Teachers and school social workers keep food on hand to give students who come to school hungry.
The supper program, criticized by some as schools doing the job of parents, is just one more way of helping struggling families, district officials say.
“We knew there was a need, and we wanted to address that need,” said Andrea Wilhoit, dietitian with Kansas City Public Schools. “If we can help, why not? If we can do better together than we can separately, then why not?”
It didn’t take long for Chester Palmer to see the need at Satchel Paige Elementary, where he’s been principal for two years.
Early on, he’d see students rush into school late. Too late to get breakfast in the cafeteria. Sometimes, students would come to his office, knowing he keeps cereal bars for hungry students.
Other times, parents would stop in to see him.
“They’d come to me crying, ‘I didn’t have anything to give them this morning,’ ” Palmer said. “They’d say, ‘Would you please allow them to eat in the cafeteria?’
“I see the need of our students. And it’s always heartbreaking to know some students are going without.”
Before the supper program, students enrolled in the LINC after-school program would get a small snack of cookies and milk.
They’d eat that and want more. Often they’d want to take some home for later.
“It’s a lot better now,” said Jason Ervin, LINC site coordinator at Satchel Paige. “We don’t have as many kids saying, ‘I’m hungry, I want more.’ ”
When there are leftovers, food a student didn’t touch, it goes on the “share table” in the middle of the cafeteria. Anything there is free game.
“For them to want to go to the share table and eat more, that means they need it,” Ervin said. “And that’s good that we have it.”
The goal is not only to feed hungry students but also to introduce proper nutrition. In many households, where money for food is tight, a main staple is cheaper, high-calorie junk food.
Meals in the supper program introduce fruits and vegetables that kids may not get at home. Students learn to like salads, or at least try them.
Ellen Cram, director of child nutrition for Kansas City Public Schools, sees the need to teach students that food that’s good for them also tastes good.
“That tray of food is my blackboard where I am teaching nutrition education,” Cram said.
At Garfield Elementary, Grimoldi walks through the cafeteria during supper and cheers on kids eating fruit and vegetables. She’s seen children unsure how to bite into an apple, and children who love the accolades she gives for eating carrots or other vegetables.
One student recently stopped her and said, “I want a high-five! Look, I’m eating celery.”
Earlier this week, Grimoldi walked up to first-grader Emoni Smith. “What do I call you?” Grimoldi asked the student.
“Healthy girl,” Emoni said, smiling wide. “ I like the salad, yogurt, carrots and celery.”
Second-grader Diana Diagne couldn’t get enough of the day’s fresh fruit.
“I think the grapes are healthy,” she said. “They help you see in the dark and have energy, too.”
The goal is to add more students to the supper program next year.
What the district is doing is just another example of how it takes many in a community to provide food to families in need, said Ellen Feldhausen, spokeswoman for Harvesters, the food bank that serves the Kansas City area. Harvesters sponsors a Kids’ Cafe program that also serves a light meal after school to about 1,700 students.
“We applaud the school districts for stepping up to help feed their students after school,” Feldhausen said. “When young children don’t get sufficient healthy food, the consequences for their health, development and ability to succeed in school can be serious and long-lasting.”
Statewide, 23 school-based sponsors provide supper to Missouri children. As many as 145,000 suppers are served monthly, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
Cram knows that some people think schools shouldn’t be responsible for feeding children every meal. In some districts, where only a small percentage of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, the help may not be needed.
But that’s not the case in the Kansas City district, where roughly 85 percent of students qualify for government-subsidized meals.
“It may not be our responsibility,” Cram said, “but it’s hard to ignore when you see the need. Students can’t learn at a deep level when they’re hungry.”