The Last Hope for Hungry Kids
Area After-School Programs Become Emergency Food Providers

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 30, 2009

The budding tennis players at an after-school program in Southeast Washington used to be picky eaters, discarding their fruit or complaining if their sandwiches had strawberry jelly instead of grape.

Now, program director Cora Masters Barry says, they eat everything set in front of them -- and then some.

"They're eating two or three sandwiches and packing others in their backpacks," said Barry, who runs the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center on Mississippi Avenue. "What we have is never, never enough."

As the recession forces more families into poverty, a growing number of after-school programs have taken on a crucial but unfamiliar role as emergency food providers for the low-income children they serve. Organizations unaccustomed to serving anything more than granola bars are finding themselves to be the last line of defense against children going hungry at night.

The number of D.C. students fed in federally qualified after-school programs has increased dramatically in the past several years, from about 1,550 a day in 2002 to 14,650 a day as of October, according to Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a local advocacy group.

Ashbrook and several leaders of national anti-hunger groups said the number of children in need has increased again in the past several months, taking a toll on many nonprofit organizations, which are simultaneously experiencing a decline in contributions.

"Many groups are serving twice as many children because of increased need, which poses a huge challenge when budgets are tight," said Carol Watson, director of grants for Share Our Strength, a Washington-based national organization for ending childhood hunger.

The strain on nonprofit budgets is expected to be acute this summer, when many after-school programs will offer activities all day and will be responsible for providing more food. The federal Summer Food Service program provides funding for programs to purchase two meals and a snack each day, but some nonprofit leaders don't think that will be enough this year.

Few statistics are available about the state of childhood hunger during the recession. Food stamp use -- considered a good indicator of the number of families at risk of going hungry -- has hit record highs in recent months, with more than 28 million people receiving them nationwide. And because studies find that only two-thirds of those eligible for food stamps enroll in the program, the number of families short of food is likely much higher.

At Barry's tennis program in Ward 8, as many as half of the students come in hungry despite having eaten free breakfast and lunch at school, because they had no dinner the night before. Barry receives 71 cents per child per day to buy snacks -- generally a sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk or juice -- through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, but she must supplement that with monthly Costco runs that total about $600, some of which comes out of her pocket.

"You want to make sure they eat but, on the other hand, want to make sure they get support with homework, which requires me to spend money on tutors. And then there's the athletic component that's a core part of who we are," Barry said. "It's like we have to choose between feeding them and educating them, but I can't with a good conscience let kids leave here hungry."

Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Richard G. Lugar (D-Ind.) introduced legislation this month that would expand a pilot program that pays for after-school organizations to provide a full evening meal. The Supper Program, which operates in 10 states and is scheduled to begin soon in Maryland, would increase federal funding to $2.57 a child. Both the snack and supper programs require organizations to provide healthy meals that include protein, fruits and vegetables and grains.

Share Our Strength estimates that as many as one in six children nationwide is at risk of hunger.

"The fact is that a lot of families can't afford to pay for dinner, so it's up to nonprofits and the government to provide the food they need," said Crystal FitzSimons, who directs efforts to improve after-school programs for the Food Research and Action Center, a research and policy group that works on hunger issues. "Plus, many schools are serving lunch as early as 10:30, so by 3:00, kids need more than an apple and a glass of milk."

Even without increased funding, some programs have beefed up the food they serve after school. At the Northeast Performing Arts Group, a dance program in Ward 7, director Rita Jackson keeps soup packets, bread and peanut butter stashed in her desk. She said she can pick out the kids who are hungry during dance classes because their energy levels are so low. Often, children who are not part of the program stop by just to eat, and she doesn't have the heart to turn them away.

"I ask why they don't have any energy, and they say they haven't had enough to eat," Jackson said. "Then I talk to their mothers and they tell me there's no food in the house. It breaks my heart every day."

Jackson, whose program does not receive federal funding for food, has cut other parts of her budget to buy more food and is dipping into her own pocket. The printers often go without ink or paper, and art supplies are increasingly limited. Jackson spends $600 to $1,000 each month to feed about 100 children.

The economic crisis has also affected programs that focus on food and cooking. At Brainfood, a cooking program in Northwest Washington, students are increasingly interested in the cost of ingredients, according to executive director Paul Dahm. The program's "budget challenge," which requires teams of students to prepare a meal for four on less than $14, has taken on new meaning for the growing number of teenagers whose families are struggling, Dahm said.

"Before the recession, I'm not sure they connected it to everyday life," Dahm said. "Now it's directly applicable to almost everyone."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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