Dinner bell follows class bell at some D.C. schools

Jadah Adams,8, enjoys a plum during supper at Thomas Elementary in Northeast Washington. Dinner is now part of extensive meal programs to fight hunger, poor nutrition and obesity.
Jadah Adams,8, enjoys a plum during supper at Thomas Elementary in Northeast Washington. Dinner is now part of extensive meal programs to fight hunger, poor nutrition and obesity. (Jonathan Newton)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

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 expands efforts to curb childhood hunger and poor nutrition.

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 counties 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 aboutchildhood poverty in the city. Census data show that the poverty rate among black 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, but some of them also 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.

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