For Students Facing Long School Day, Supper Is Served
New Program Seeks To Reach Those Who May Not Have Food At Home
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
January 16, 2012
HARTFORD — — A free meal at school for breakfast, lunch — and dinner?
About 450 city students have been eating supper in school cafeterias as part of a government-funded meal program that may expand in Hartford and also to other Connecticut school systems this year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives schools about $2.99 per dinner to serve students in after-school activities that involve academics.
New London was the first school system in the state to begin serving free dinner about a year ago, and Hartford, East Hartford and New Britain started their programs last fall.
A Manchester elementary school is also in the process of being approved for the federal "at-risk" after-school meals program, according to the state Department of Education, which receives applications from schools throughout the year.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, supported by first lady Michelle Obama, included a national expansion of the program that the USDA estimates could help an additional 140,000 children in low-income areas.
In Connecticut, school administrators hope the extra meal will entice families to consider a much longer school day. Students receiving dinner spend as many as 10 hours at school, first in classes and then in late-afternoon activities, including tutoring.
So far, Hartford has introduced dinner to the Latino Studies Academy at Burns, Bellizzi Middle School, Naylor School and the Core Knowledge Academy at Milner. A small group of Hartford Public High School choir students also receive a bagged meal about once a week, said Lonnie Burt, the city schools' food and nutrition director.
Starting Tuesday, Burt plans to extend the program to roughly 150 students at Batchelder Elementary School, and potentially to Kennelly School and the Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy in the coming year. High participation is key.
The federal program does not limit the number of participants and "you need enough students… to cover the costs and break even," said Burt, who sends a nutrition staffer to each school to prepare and serve the "student-friendly" dinners.
At Burns one recent evening, that meant cheeseburgers on a whole wheat bun, a version of Tater Tots called "potato smiles," locally grown apples and milk. About 100 children filed through the cafeteria line past sundown. Their school day starts at 7:45 a.m. and dinner is served about 5 p.m. They leave by 6 p.m., about two-thirds getting home on a school bus.
"It tastes very good," said 11-year-old Angelyca Mims, a sixth-grader in Burns' COMPASS after-school program. She later grabbed some leftovers. "Crispy."
Elizabeth Giannetta, a community school director for COMPASS, said that without the dinner, "a lot of our kids go to homes without food."
'A Long Day'
Hartford's supper program began in October as a pilot at Burns, where at least 50 of the younger children are enrolled in an after-school initiative called CityMusic, a partnership with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
At Bellizzi Middle, where regular classes end at 4:25 p.m., about 100 students eat supper before beginning their after-school activities.
"These students are here until 6, 6:30 at night," said Burt, a registered dietitian. "That's a long day. To be able to get them fed before they go through the door — that's the right thing to do."
New London began its supper program at the middle school last January, expanded to the high school in February and to the city's parks and recreation in the spring. On average, about 300 students a day receive supper, including up to 180 at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, said Gail Sharry, the school system's food services director.
During winter break, about 80 New London students continued to receive free dinner through the parks and recreation department, said Sharry, who plans to reapply for funding for the next school year.
"It's a very easy program, it's needed and the students are really enjoying it," she said.
The extra meal is "a reward in some ways, and the students are able to talk more freely with teachers," Sharry said. "It's more informal. It's almost like they're sitting at the dinner table."
Jeffrey Taddeo, the food service director for Whitsons Culinary Group, which contracts with New Britain schools, called it "a calmer environment." At New Britain High School, anywhere from 112 to 215 students receive supper daily. Taddeo said he would like to expand the program beyond the high school.
"Even some of the kids who may be more difficult during the day, they are more relaxed" for dinner, said Taddeo, who has introduced organic foods to the suppers.
At East Hartford Middle School, about 50 students were enrolled in the Crossroads after-school enrichment program when the dinners began in October. Now the average is 75 students.
"Adding dinner to it was an advantage," said Shari Staeb, the food service manager for Sodexo, the company that contracts East Hartford's school meals. If the staffing costs are feasible, Staeb said, she would like to open the program to more town schools, and plans to call Hartford for advice on expansion.
In Manchester, a pilot program began Jan. 9 at Nathan Hale Elementary School, where about 30 students have been served grilled teriyaki chicken on a whole wheat roll with steamed green beans, and can anticipate vegetarian chili and rice on a future supper menu, said Nick Aldi, the school system's food service director.
The state has scheduled an onsite review for Thursday, a step before Manchester receives final approval for meal reimbursement.
"We're hoping once the word gets out," Aldi said, "more students will enroll."
Aldi emphasized that the suppers will be different from the students' typical lunchtime fare, incorporating as many fresh foods as possible. "I don't want to chicken patty them to death," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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