By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 1:13 AM
D.C. public schools have started serving an early dinner to an estimated 10,000 students, many of whom are now receiving three meals a day from the system as it expand efforts to curb childhood hunger and poor nutritition.
Free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch long have been staples in most urban school systems. But the District is going a step further in 99 of its 123 schools and reaching nearly a quarter of its total enrollment. Montgomery and Prince George's Country also offer a third meal of the day in some schools but not on the scale undertaken in the city.
The program, which will cost the school system about $5.7 million this year, comes at a time of heightened concern about childhood poverty in the city. Census data show that the poverty rate among African American children is 43 percent, up from 31 percent in 2007 and significantly higher than national rates.
Officials describe the dinner initiative as having three goals: hedging against childhood hunger, reducing alarming rates of obesity and drawing more students to after-school programs, where extra academic help is available. It is also part of a broader effort, mandated by recent D.C. Council legislation, to upgrade the quality and nutritional value of school food with fresh, locally grown ingredients.
Until this year, most after-school fare was a snack of juice and a muffin or bagel. But for children who spend up to 10 1/2 hours at school - from early care at 8 a.m. to the end of after-care at 6:30, it wasn't enough. Officials started hearing from principals and teachers that not only were many kids hungry for the last few hours of a long day, some of them weren't eating much at home.
"We knew that a lot of kids were only eating at school," said Jeff Mills, director of food services for D.C. schools. And in some cases, "they were taking food home to feed their families," said Alexandra Ashbrook, director of D.C. Hunger Solutions, a group that works to improve nutrition and health for low-income residents.
The District piloted the program at a few schools last year before launching it full scale this fall. The city joins 13 states that serve after-school supper through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which reimburses D.C. $2.92 for each meal.
Kids say the supper is a huge upgrade over the skimpy snacks.
"The chicken salad is good here," said Adam Shepard, 10, a fourth-grader at Thomas Elementary in the Kenilworth-Parkside community of Ward 7. "And the fruit has more flavor."
Kavon Wilson, a fourth-grader at Houston Elementary in Ward 7's Deanwood neighborhood, looked over his turkey, ham and Swiss chef salad and found something not typically offered during meals at home.
"Broccoli," said Kavon as he pulled a piece from the salad and held it between his thumb and index finger. He ate the salad and a banana, a piece of fresh fruit that teachers say is rarely consumed by children in his Northeast Washington neighborhood, and so finished his third meal at school that day.
A Gallup poll conducted for the Food Research Action Center, a nonprofit group that works to widen access to healthy food in schools, found that at least once between 2008 and 2009, 40 percent of D.C. households with children did not have enough money to buy food.
Crecynthia Hall-Cooper, president of PTA at Thomas Elementary, said that she makes an effort to expose her daughter, Christina, 8, to different kinds of produce at home, but many children at the school do not eat many vegetables.
"Most of the fruits they know. They're good with that. But some of them have never seen cauliflower or squash. It's less financial than they have just never been introduced to it," said Hall-Cooper.
Houston Elementary, where 90 percent of the 250 children meet income guidelines for free and reduced-price lunches, is an area of the city that the research group says suffers from poor access to healthy, affordable food.
"A lot of these kids have never seen a pear or held a plum," said David Strong, culinary director for Fresh Start, the catering arm of DC Central Kitchen, which prepares from-scratch meals at seven public schools as part of the District's food overhaul. Stong recalled a back-to-school night last month at Kelly Miller Middle School, also in Northeast Washington, when he asked an audience of parents if they'd had a piece of fresh fruit in the past two weeks.
"Maybe two or three people raised their hands," Strong said.
A 2009 study by the D.C. Health Departmnent concluded that 43 percent of students enrolled in public schools were overweight or obese, one of the highest rates in the nation. It was part of the impetus for the D.C. Council's passage earlier this year of the Healthy Schools Act, which mandated that school menus include low-calorie and low-fat meals.
Menus have been revamped completely. Gone are mystery meat, congealed pizza and vegetables steamed to the consistency of soggy tissues.
Mills' dinner offerings instead feature soy-ginger noodles with sweet-and-sour chicken and vegetables, chicken ceasar wraps and southwest corn, bean and cheddar salad. Every meal also comes with milk and some sort of fresh fruit from a farm in the region.
None of which means that if you serve it, they will eat it. Pizza on flat bread crust with fresh mozzarella and tomato sauce is a favorite. The three-bean salad, not so much.
"I don't eat salad. It makes me sick," said D'Andre, a Houston second-grader, who left his chef salad unopened in its clear plastic container and instead tucked into a bag of Doritos, washed down with a hefty pouch of Kool Aid Jammers Grape juice.
Emanuel Gross, a fourth-grader at Thomas Elementary, passed up his roast beef wrap last week for a bag of Doritos. He said he expected to have a "TV dinner" when he got home. Another student said she was having lasagna that she liked to sprinkle with sugar.
Strong said that getting teachers to buy into the idea of healthy foods also has been a challenge.
"These kids are getting wonderful from-scratch cooking, and then they go back to their homeroom and it smells like a quarter-pounder with cheese, where teachers are walking up and down the hall with their big Wendy's cups," Strong said. "Now we're a little bit past that."