Dinner Is Served...at School?

Acknowledging the link between food insecurity and academic performance, some schools are serving up supper.

children eating cafeteria meals, kids eating hamburgers at school for lunch
Under the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, students in need can now eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school. (Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Ask a kid to multiply, read, or solve a science problem when his stomach is growling, and chances are he'll have trouble focusing on the task. That's why schools are increasingly turning to programs that serve up breakfast, lunch, and even dinner to students in need.

Many kids across the country sit in class not knowing where their next meal will come from. Though thousands eat free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school, dinner is still in question. Acknowledging the connection between food insecurity and academic performance, schools are starting to serve up supper, too, becoming the primary providers of some students' nutrition.

"There are some of these kids who you know just don't eat when they go home," Jennifer LeBarre, nutrition service director at Oakland Unified School district, told  The Huffington Post. 

Funding for dinners comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Child and Adult Care Food Program through the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act. The act was signed into law by President Obama in December 2010.

Under the act, the federal government foots the bill for dinner programs in communities where at least 50 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Previously, only 13 states were funded for the program.

Dinners are served during after-school childcare or tutoring programs. Schools in Kansas City, Oakland, and Memphis are already taking advantage of the new funding.

According to The Huffington Post, the Congressional Budget Office estimates there will be nearly 21 million additional suppers served by 2015, and 29 million by 2020.

The Food Research and Action Center's (FRAC) information on the School Breakfast Program underscores the need for nutrition in schools. In the 2010-2011 school year:

11.7 million children in 87,814 school participated in the program on a typical day.

83.4 percent of them received free and reduced-price breakfast.

88 percent of schools serving lunch also serve breakfast

For every 100 children receiving free and reduced-price lunch, 48.2 received free and reduced-price breakfast

The benefits of a nutritious meal are obvious. From the FRAC website: 

Schools that offer breakfast free to all students in the classroom report decreases in discipline and psychological problems, visits to school nurses and tardiness; increases in student attentiveness and attendance; and generally improved learning environments.

U.S. Department of Agriculture research also shows that students who take part in federal school lunch programs have "superior nutritional intakes compared to those who do not participate."

As an added perk, because meals are served after-school hours at childcare and tutoring programs, students who didn't otherwise engage in after-school programs are now drawn to additional learning opportunities.

But not everyone is celebrating. The addition of dinner has caught flak from some who think that federal funding has gone too far in providing for kids in need. 

David Asman introduced the Fox News segment on the new dinner program with a cynical tone. “First it was school lunches, then school breakfasts. Now, school dinners?" he said. "A new nanny state plan that some say won’t only destroy American tax dollars, it’ll destroy American families too.”

To critics, Tony Geraci, executive director of child nutrition for the Memphis City School District, has an answer:

"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," he told The Huffington Post. "There would be pot roast wafting through the living home when they show up at home. But that's not how it is."

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