The Santa Rosa County School District provides after-school feeding

Students in the Santa Rosa County School District who participate in extracurricular activities used to be eligible for free snacks after school. Now they can get something even more fulfilling: a free dinner.

Northwest Florida recently launched a daily dinner program targeting schools and Title 1 schools where 50% or more of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The program, which replaces the after-school snack offer, comes with a catch-up rate of $3 per dinner. It currently operates in 10 local schools, serving between 30 and 70 children in each school with a total of 400 to 500 meals per day.

“After the pandemic, we noticed that everyone was feeling thrifty. This program was an opportunity to give value to families and communities, especially in the pockets of those in need, while providing more nutrition to feed a child through the rest of the day,” says Leslie Bell, director of pediatric nutrition at Sodexo, which runs operations Eating in the area. “It’s one less meal that families are likely to consider.”

While the old snack program gave students access to fruit and grain-based snacks (such as graham crackers), the dinner program ensured that students received nutritious calories to support activities such as sports, clubs, and tutoring. Following federal guidelines for school meals, dinners include a sandwich, fruit and vegetables, and a carton of milk. Bill notes, “It’s similar to what they’d have on the lunch program.”

Sandwich options at six middle schools, middle school, and one pre-K include buffalo chicken wraps, turkey sandwiches, or peanut butter and jelly. At the high school, students can walk through a new deli bar line to get custom-made sandwiches. Students can get meals in the school cafeteria. Elementary and middle school students may dine between 2:00 and 3:30 pm; For high school students, between 4:30 and 5:40 p.m.

After gauging interest from schools about the offer, the district had to submit an application to the Department of Health. Once approved, any school within the school district that qualifies based on free or reduced-price lunches and after-school enrichment activities can operate the dinner program. The district also had to train every participating employee on federal nutrition guidelines for dinner. “We had to train every single person at every site who was distributing a meal or checking the meal,” says Bell. “With any type of lunch or dinner program, if you don’t meet compliance, you’re putting your reimbursement rates at risk.”

With the paperwork and training out, moving between programs was relatively easy. There was no need for labor redeployment in the elementary and middle schools, as food service staff would move to dinner preparation around 1:00 PM, once lunch service had ended. An additional food service employee was required for the high school program to set up the deli bar and assemble the sandwiches as students passed through the serving line.

Spreading the word about the program involved working with after-school programs in individual schools. For high school, that meant coordinating with the Senior Title Principal. “He reached out to all of the high school club directors as well as the teaching organizations on campus,” says Bell. “In elementary and middle schools, after-school programs and principles reached out to various organizations to let them know what we were doing.” Many schools have posted the dinner program on social media such as Facebook.

The program targets children who stay in the school to attend school. But in the end, any kid can get a free meal. “We’d prefer the kid to be part of some kind of enrichment activity on campus to participate in. But if they just show up, then yes, they can have dinner,” says Bell.

Feedback from participating schools has been enthusiastic. “Students won’t always tell you how hungry they are. You only see results indirectly,” says Bell, who has received positive reports from school administrators. “They say it reduces behavior problems, improves illness and academic performance, and improves tardiness,” she says.

The surrounding school districts also reached out to Bell for tips on how to implement a similar program. Which is logical, given all the advantages. “It’s good for students whether they’re doing academic programs, tutoring, or any kind of leadership activity. It feeds their minds in the afternoons. Plus the reimbursement rate is higher for the district,” she says.