By Penny McLaren 2015-02-24 23:01:31
Four school nutrition directors share why and how supper at school makes sense and cents. When Tim Goossens first heard about a program that would allow him to serve supper in schools, he pictured students sitting around a table, sharing a nice turkey dinner. Wait, scratch that. “I quickly realized, that’s not the way it’s going to work,” recounts Goossens, foodservice director for the Laconia (N.H.) School District. He did recognize that, with 74% of district students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals, there was a genuine need to feed kids one more meal in the day. That’s why, in 2012, he and his team began offering an afterschool supper program. It might not resemble a famous Norman Rockwell painting, but it does work. It offers good nutritious meals to kids at a time of day when they need it—and Goossens is very happy with the results. “It has worked really, really well,” he reports. It’s a similar story in Kansas City, Mo., where Leah Schmidt, SNS, director of nutrition services for Hickman Mills C-1 School District and 2013-14 SNA president, runs a supper program in 13 schools. “It’s a win-win win situation,” says Schmidt. “It meets the needs of families struggling with food insecurity, helping them to extend their food dollars in other ways. It increases jobs in the community, since we have turned 13 part-time jobs into full-time positions, with benefits. It is also a self-supporting program. It pays for itself.” School nutrition departments all across the country are making the addition of supper in schools a bona fide success story. Whenever students are staying at school after the final bell—whether it be for sports, academic improvement, enrichment activities or just until their parents can pick them up after work— supper is another opportunity to serve. Supper in schools certainly seems like more work for an already-stretched department contending with so many new operational complications. But for all those contacted for this article, the reason to add an after school supper program is crystal clear: to help kids who are hungry. Jennifer LeBarre, SNS, executive director of nutrition services, Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District, knows that for many kids, an afterschool snack simply isn’t enough. “That snack could be a beverage and as little as two graham crackers,” she notes. “Everybody is overwhelmed,” concedes Doug Davis, SNS, director of the Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project, of colleagues who voice reluctance about adding one more project to their to-do list. “But we are all pulling the rock in the same direction. The supper program helps us be more visible, and [others] will see we are part of the community.” Goossens, Schmidt, LeBarre and Davis didn’t need much convincing to start offering afterschool suppers in their districts. And they were more than willing to share their own experiences with School Nutrition readers in the hopes that more and more districts will consider offering this valuable program. Suppertime In… Laconia (N.H.) School District As of SY 2015-16, all 2,100 students in Goossens’ five-school (three elementary, one middle, one high) district have an opportunity to eat a supper meal at school. Foodservice Director Tim Goossens introduced the program in “baby steps,” beginning with a January 2012 trial at the largest elementary school. It was the first supper program initiated in New Hampshire, by the way. “When the sky didn’t collapse,” jokes Goossens, “we added the other elementary schools.” Laconia’s supper program is meeting a great need in the community, he says, citing the 75% free/reduced eligibility rate. “The need is there,” says Goossens. “It would be worth it to fill that need, even if the program would just break even.” But it doesn’t just break even—it integrates easily into the existing workday, without adding labor costs. “We find time to do prepackaged meals during the normal school day,” he explains. Service is overseen by afterschool program staff. It helps that both lunch and supper at the elementary school level is a grab ‘n’ go-style meal. So the staff that makes 75 such meals for lunch only had to make roughly 25 additional meals to be served at 5 p.m. for supper. Over time, Goossens and his staff decided to transition from exclusively offering cold, prepackaged suppers to menuing the occasional hot dish, such as a casserole-style macaroni and cheese. Somewhat to their surprise, the students preferred the cold items, he reports—and hot meals meant an added burden on school custodians. For SY 2014-15, the school nutrition team is back to serving only cold food items, like sandwiches, yogurt, string cheese and a popular branded nutrition bar. It is a simple menu that doesn’t change from week to week. All of the meal components are packaged in a single container, except for the milk. The reimbursement for supper served to students is $2.98 per meal. For Goossens, food costs run about $1.50 to $1.60 per meal, but with no additional labor costs. That yields a 50% return on each meal. “Over a year, that’s a lot,” he notes, estimating $30,000 in food and supply costs, yielding $60,000 in revenue. “If a district has an issue with labor, the supper program could be costly,” he concedes. Afterschool suppers were introduced to the district’s middle school in Fall 2014 and at the high school in January 2015. At Laconia High School, the numbers of students involved in the supper program will vary from 20 to 50 students, depending on the programs offered on a specific day, whether it be drama or team sports. Getting a close estimate of those numbers in advance is an important challenge. “We don’t want to have waste,” says Goossens, adding, “We are happy with the way our program is going.” Suppertime In… Hickman-Mills C-1 School District, Kansas City, Mo. “The program just fell in our lap,” says Leah Schmidt, of the supper service she began five years ago in the 13-school district. She explains that her team had been participating in an afterschool snack program, but was unhappy with the logistics and the need for someone outside of the department to be responsible for distributing the snacks. But upon the introduction of the federal supper program—and with the help of the Food Research and Action Center—they developed an action plan that would allow them to pay for a school nutrition employee to staff each of the 13 sites when the meals are served. In addition, a supper program coordinator oversees the program at the district level. Students participating in the supper program get a full meal at no cost. The school nutrition team menus both cold meals (like sandwiches) and hot meals, (such as spaghetti, casseroles or a chicken patty). At the elementary school level, children eat the meal in the cafeteria between 4 and 4:30 p.m. At the high school, where student participation in afterschool activities may vary, Schmidt and her team are still working out production issues to minimize waste. Schmidt is gratified that the program generates enough revenue that she could increase 13 jobs at individual schools from part-time to full-time status. The former part-time workers also help at lunch. There’s no extra pay required for custodial staff, as they are already scheduled to be in the schools throughout that time. The community has a high rate of food insecurity, with free and reduced-price eligibility at 86%. Schmidt is also glad to provide the children with nutritious meals. “It is better than the kids going to a convenience store,” she notes. “The supper meal they get in school offers whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and is a lot more wholesome than what they might find elsewhere.” Suppertime In… Burlington (Vt.) School Food Project After starting his supper program slowly, initially introducing it at only a few sites, Doug Davis is now serving supper at all Burlington schools, as well as at two community sites. “For us, it was all about food access,” explains Davis. “Kids were missing meals when they stayed after school. Now they can have nutrient-dense meals at the end of the day. School is the best opportunity to get that.” Supper is also “the most cost-effective meal we serve,” he notes. “We find there are a lot of efficiencies from lunch to supper, which are different than from breakfast to lunch.” It is also a different program in terms of pacing. “Supper is more social than lunch,” Davis continues. “Suppers tend to be relaxed, flexible. We still feed a lot of students in a short amount of time, but they are in a different mindset than they are at lunch time, when they must head back to class when lunch is over.” That social interaction isn’t only among the kids. “It also helps us to maintain good relationships with the kids. It is a really great opportunity to check in with and talk to them.” As a vendor to a local Boys and Girls Club, which serves up to 100 children a day, Davis offers the assistance of one his school nutrition employees. That individual works part time at the school, then brings the food to the Club, setting up the service. Partnering with the outside agency gains Burlington’s school nutrition operation some stature, instead of always being overlooked in the community. “The other meals we serve are no less important,” says Davis, “but supper does reach kids in a way that is unique.” Davis acknowledges that the supper program often requires a bit of a sell. The most pushback from school administrators relates to providing oversight for the students, as well as support from the custodial staff. He advises colleagues in other districts to hang tough when faced with such resistance. “Each time we have initiated the program, the administration has recognized it as successful,” he reports. Of course, it’s helpful that the district’s wellness policy specifically requires his department to participate in all USDA child nutrition programs for which they qualify. “We aren’t doing anything vastly different,” Davis says of his department’s success all across the school nutrition spectrum. “But like showing off our school gardens or putting our logo on delivery trucks, the supper program helps us to be more visible. We are seen as part of the community.” Suppertime In… Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District Jennifer LeBarre oversees school meal service at 86 schools. This school year, she and her team are serving supper in 30 of them. After an SY 2012-13 pilot with just a few schools, she gradually added more each year. As word of success continues to spread, more schools want to participate. But for now, LeBarre is capping the number at the 30 sites with the greatest percentage of low-income children. That’s because she simply doesn’t have the production capacity to expand further, although this should change in SY 2017-18, when a new central production kitchen is expected to open. For now, LeBarre’s team partners with California-based Revolution Foods, which prepares meals for those sites that don’t have full kitchens. In fact, she notes, “We had been trying to figure out a way to work with them for some time,” and the supper program proved to be a good opportunity to partner. “We could only have served these schools when the new central kitchen was built, but that was four years away and too long to wait,” LeBarre recounts. Initially, she’d explored the idea of partnering with another school district, but could not make the numbers work. Still, she encourages others concerned about production capacity to consider contracting the meal service to a neighboring school district. Supper service is in the cafeteria. At sites that involve Revolution Food, hot meals (such as vegetarian chili on Meatless Mondays, barbecue chicken, cheeseburger) are menued three days and cold meals (including a taco salad) on the others. In high schools, supper is served at the end of the regular school day, around 2 p.m., with an afternoon snack following later. At elementary and middle schools, supper is offered at 5:30 p.m. LeBarre counts herself as a fan of the supper program. The reimbursements provide a good revenue base that has allowed her to increase the hours—and the benefits—of several of her staff members. “I would tell anyone to go for it,” she says. “You are serving children in one more way, and plugging a hole in their need for nutritious food, like the summer meal program does. It is just a good thing to do.” Penny McLaren is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication. You can reach her at email@example.com. Photography by iStock/jiunlimited.com. Six Supper Start-up Suggestions START SMALL. Like an echo, each school nutrition director interviewed by School Nutrition encouraged those unfamiliar with the program to take baby steps, with just one or two schools in a pilot program. It’s the wisest way to work out any problems that might crop up, and solve them on a small scale. “It allows you to work out the kinks and learn new requirements,” explains Oakland’s Jennifer LeBarre. FIND PARTNERS. Seek out other agencies at the local or state level that are eager to take advantage of the supper program to feed hungry children, engage students in safe afterschool activities or both. There are many organizations that have a stake in a program of this kind. “Establish a good partnership with an agency that can offer support,” says Tim Goossens in Laconia. STAFF SMART. “Having the right person in charge is important,” notes Leah Schmidt in Kansas City’s Hickman Mills School District. “You need good communication. It’s all about administrative support.” It can help to identify specific allies at school sites, notes LeBarre. “It might be an afterschool program director or some other staff member. Find a champion to work with you.” ESTABLISH EXPECTATIONS. Do you know what you want to accomplish with your program? It’s a critical first question, asserts Goossens. Are you seeking to reach a certain percentage of children, fund a defined number of labor hours, offset losses in other programs? Once your priorities are clear, getting started will be easier. REMEMBER YOUR AUDIENCE. When the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) started so many long years ago, it’s likely that few envisioned a day when supper at school would be a welcome support for many working families. To students who may spend nearly 12 hours at school, an afterschool supper fills both hungry bellies and active minds. MAKE IT A MISSION. With all NSLP schools required to have a local wellness policy, can school nutrition operations make such policies work for them? “Make it a working document, not just something to leave on a shelf,” advises Burlington’s Doug Davis. His district’s wellness policy makes participation in worthy initiatives like the supper program a challenge worth figuring out.
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