After-school “enrichment” at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School involves not just learning, but eating supper — a meal many students might not otherwise get.
Following the lead of Co-op and two other New Haven schools that have been feeding kids full meals after school, five more public schools plan to add a dinner service next week.
The New Haven Food Policy Council requested that the district to offer three meals a day. Now the administration is trying to expand the number of schools where kids won’t go home hungry in the afternoon.
After students return from winter break, supper is to be served for the first time at Wilbur Cross High School, Sound School, High School in the Community, Columbus Academy and Lincoln-Bassett Community School. Plans are in the works to bring evening meals to Hillhouse High School and John S. Martinez, too.
A feasibility study about rolling out dinner district-wide is due on March 1.
At last week’s Board of Education meeting, several parents from Witnesses to Hunger, a group of anti-poverty advocates, spoke about the urgency of bringing supper to more schools, particularly in a city where one in five New Haveners are estimated to be “food insecure,” meaning at some point in the past month they missed a meal because they were unable to afford food.
Kimberly Hart explained to the board members what that daily struggle for adequate nutrition looks like. Hart said she used to be able to take her son to soup kitchens. But now, as a 16-year-old who plays multiple sports, he’s embarrassed to show his face in line, even though he needs more food than ever.
“He’s not going to go, but he will eat supper at the school as long as his peers are eating there,” Hart told the school board. “I don’t know the logistics behind it, I don’t know what it’s going to cost, I don’t know what the federal government will do. I don’t know any of that information. All I know is that if we had a supper at the schools, my son would not come home hungry. I would not have to sit and watch him eat alone because we don’t have enough food.”
As the meals program expands, principals can find a model in Co-Op, where robust after-school programs and scrupulous record-keeping have made supper a success.
At the downtown high school, about half the student body stays past the final bell for art classes, club meetings or tutoring, said Kjerstin Pugh, the after-school programming director. For many students, that means working until 4:30 p.m., long after the three waves of lunch end at 11:10 a.m., 11:55 a.m. and 12:40 p.m.
The meals are all reimbursed by the state and federal governments, said Gail Sharry, the district’s food service director, as long as schools stay within the strict guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
The toughest aspect is taking attendance so the district can say exactly which kids ate on what days in an audit, Sharry said.
As long as at least 100 students stay for enrichment programs, Sharry can cover the cost of the two workers it takes to serve a hot meal. (At Co-Op, they regularly count 140 kids every afternoon.) If only 50 students stay, Sharry can only afford one worker. She’s working on a pilot — a “super-snack,” as she calls it — to see if that’s enough staffing to throw together an uncooked meal.
Currently, many schools provide an after-school snack, often a juice and a granola bar. Those are far less wholesome than the five-item supper, which includes a protein, a whole grain, a fruit, a vegetable and milk. Students have to take at least three items, Sharry noted.
For teenagers, the supper goes a lot further. “It’s an upgrade,” Pugh said.
On Thursday, Co-Op students had their choice of a turkey and cheese sandwich on a croissant, a PB&J sandwich (made with sunflower seeds, instead of peanuts), or yogurt with string cheese. The meal, which began at 3:30 p.m., came with sides of green beans and a fresh fruit salad of apples, pears and oranges, as well as low-fat milk and juice.
Multiple students in the cafeteria said they appreciated the extra meal, whether just as a holdover until their parents cooked bigger dinner or as a necessity in homes where the fridge is often empty.
“A lot of people don’t get the option of having food at home,” said Betsy Henderson, a junior who was staying late for the strategy games club. Without a meal, it’s hard to focus, she said. “When you’re hungry, all you can think is, How long is it until I eat again? It overpowers concentration.”
Fernando Ortiz, another gamer, added that not having enough money for an afternoon snack shouldn’t keep any of his classmates from staying after school.
Rylan Mayo, a sophomore taking fine-arts classes, said the supper provided the boost to get him through the last hour. On Thursday, he’d been throwing pottery on the wheel, an intense physical activity. “Midway through, I’m pretty exhausted,” he said. “When I stayed before [without a meal], it was pretty tiring. Now that I have [supper], I have the energy to go home and do my homework.”
While going hungry might keep some students away from after-school programs, providing a meal might be an incentive for more to stay late or show up for school at all, observed Principal Val-Jean Belton.
In addition to Co-Op, supper service is already in place at Roberto Clemente Academy and John C. Daniels School, both in the Hill.
Members of the New Haven Food Policy Council, a city-run advisory panel, said they’re willing to troubleshoot any issues that the report highlights.
“I know there’s lots of regulations,” said council member Billy Bromage, “but that’s not a reason not to go districtwide. That’s a reason to go carefully, to be conscientious about it. This board is well put-together to do that.”