By Laura Hatch and Carolyn Wait, MPH, RD 2017-09-05 07:52:51
A new, simple approach can lead to amazing growth in snack and supper participation. You may have experienced it before: the overwhelming crush of students streaming out of classrooms at the end of the day and rushing off to sports practice, theater rehearsal, tutoring, an afterschool job or just to catch the bus. You may be tempted to stay out of the fray, but school nutrition professionals like Mark Streamer, general manager, Peoria (Ill.) Public Schools, dive straight in. These steadfast strongholds of sustenance know that hanging back from the post-school day melee can deprive kids of what they most need in order to be successful whether in the school building or outside of it. If you were to ask Streamer, or any other nutrition professional for that matter, what children need to flourish, each would reply, “a meal.” WHEN IT RAINS, IT POURS The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), a fixture in school nutrition circles for decades, happens to provide (among services such as child care centers and emergency shelters) one of the fastest-growing, community-based trends: supper. And it’s on-trend status is no mistake. It’s a valuable added service to afterschool programs and busy kids alike, as well as a revenue source and job generator for school nutrition departments. Most importantly, it’s a critical support to children in need and that’s exactly why Streamer didn’t hesitate to join a pilot study on increasing access to Afterschool Meals led by Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry (NKH) campaign. No Kid Hungry works with schools and community-based organizations to maximize Afterschool Meals as a critical component of ending childhood hunger in the United States. After a decade as a limited pilot program, the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program was permanently authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010. Compared to its first year of nationwide implementation, the number of suppers served in FY 2016 was nearly five times higher. And that growth, according to preliminary 2017 data, shows no sign of stopping. A large gap, however, remains: as of 2016, there were less than five afterschool suppers served for every hundred free and reduced-price school lunches served to kids in need. In some states, implementation of the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program is so low that there are just a few suppers served for every thousand free or reduced-price lunches. This broad, but not insurmountable, gap is understandable considering some of the challenges for schools: low awareness, unpredictable participation, rigid bus schedules, and, often, a separate application and audit. While these concerns are real, many school nutrition professionals have already paved the way by identifying strategies to overcome barriers and achieve success in the Afterschool Meals Program. Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition services at Willmar (Minn.) Public Schools enthusiastically espouses, “Do it! The application is cumbersome, but don’t let it stop you from doing a program that benefits students; think about helping students to be successful. And the second year was a lot easier.” For school nutrition departments, meal participation reigns supreme. This truth certainly holds firm when it comes to supper. With the need for high meal participation in mind, NKH began piloting the Umbrella Model—a new strategy to increase the reach of afterschool meals throughout the school building. FULL COVERAGE For a variety of reasons, many schools serve supper for a specific afterschool program. Perhaps the program coordinator asked for suppers, or perhaps the school nutrition director assumed the meals could only go to students enrolled in a formal afterschool activity. This “closed” model of Afterschool Meals significantly limits your reach, and it often leaves out the kids who most need a meal, since they rely on the bus or must care for siblings. According to Courtney Smith, Managing Director at No Kid Hungry, “It’s a common misconception that kids have to participate in an activity to get a meal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has actually been pretty clear that they just need the option to participate. You don’t have to track whether or not they go.” Instead, picture this: at the sound of the final bell, students crisscross the school’s central foyer on their way to their afterschool destinations. Your cafeteria supervisor or manager is there, in the thick of it, to let them know that they can stop by a convenient kiosk to pick up an afterschool meal, which they can take to their activity, eat leisurely at the kiosk or take on the go. Dubbed the “Umbrella Model,” this structure opens up the meal program to any child or teen on campus during afterschool hours as long as there is some enrichment activity available; this can be as simple as volunteer- or teacher-provided tutoring. An added bonus is that this model allows student athletes, who need extra protein, to eat. A school cannot operate the Afterschool Meals Program exclusively for its athletes, but they can participate if there is an open enrichment program onsite with meals available to all. This is great for business-savvy school nutrition professionals like Betty Crocker, a food service assistant in Alvord Unified (Calif.) School District, who notes that “sports teams are our biggest customer.” While you must maintain some kind of attendance record or roster along with the meal count, it doesn’t have to be linked to any activity. Besides which, the Afterschool Meals Program regulations specifically state that there’s no requirement for enrollment so meal participants do not even need to be enrolled students. For example, siblings who attend another school could join their brother or sister for a meal. Subsequent data demonstrated that this Model could increase participation in middle and high schools by over 50%. TODAY’S OUTLOOK: SUNNY! The Umbrella Model sounded good in theory, but No Kid Hungry put it to the test by conducting pilot studies in twenty schools during 2015. The goal was to see whether opening up a closed model supper program to the entire student body would actually boost participation enough to merit the switch. The results were striking! On average, there was a 53% increase in meals served during the pilot period over prior supper participation. Furthermore, during the experiment, of schools that truly opened the supper program to all students, an average 28% of consumers who received a meal indicated that they were not participating in an activity. This is a true win, since the pilot reached students in need who were previously shut out from these programs under closed models. The availability of supper meals can also create a positive cycle that encourages more kids to stay for afterschool programming. Terina Edington, assistant director of school and community nutrition services for Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools, relayed the story of a parent who called to thank her for starting the Afterschool Meals Program because her son had never wanted to stay for tutoring until he knew he also could get a meal there. (BRAIN)STORMING FOR SUCCESS In her small rural area, Food Service Director Pam Watson, Floresville (Texas) Independent School District (ISD) and her team feel a keen sense of responsibility for nourishing their 4,000 students, just over half of whom are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. [Editors’ Note: Since being interviewed by School Nutrition, Watson has left Floresville ISD.] Many of her high school students commute over an hour by bus to and from school. And for some of her students, lunch was often the last meal they might eat for the rest of the day. This made the Umbrella Model a perfect fit. To rollout the program successfully, Watson knew she needed two things: support from her principal and the right location. Her principal was on board with providing suppers to all students and helped to promote Afterschool Meals by advertising it on the school’s marquis, posting flyers around the school and including it on the school’s website. As for location, Watson retrofitted a former storage room to serve as the school’s café, since it was well-located near both the library and the outdoor common area in front of the school. In no time, students hurried from their last class to the café for a meal. They could eat in the café or on the benches in the common area before heading to their activities or boarding buses to go home. Students even showed sensitivity to others’ schedules: those with more time allowed students to jump the line if they needed to catch a ride or get to an activity. Implementing the Umbrella Model allowed Watson to reach almost twice as many students as she would have if she only served meals to students enrolled in activities. During the pilot, 45% of the students eating supper indicated that they weren’t enrolled in activities at Floresville High School. The extra participation allowed Watson to add hours for her existing staff members, who began prepping supper right after the lunch service. Since they were already familiar with USDA meal patterns and recording procedures, the supper service line moved with efficiency and rapidity. Watson’s success with rolling out Afterschool Meals in the high school prompted her to institute the program in her middle school the following year. Not only do Floresville students benefit from an additional nutritious meal, so does the foodservice department. Watson notes, “The benefits are a win-win for the students and for the school district. We are already half way into the school year and we have over $40,000 extra in the budget because of dinner meals only.” THROWING CAUTION TO THE WIND As with any successful school nutrition program, actualization relies on partnership and coordination beyond the school nutrition department. By testing the Umbrella Model in numerous schools, NKH learned some valuable lessons to consider as this innovative practice gains momentum nationwide. » Logistics matter: As Pam Watson and Mark Streamer learned, when and where you serve the meal can make all the difference. Those in the pilot study also took full advantage of USDA guidance that meals can be served throughout the school by delivering meals to activity groups. A clear record-keeping system that maintains compliance without slowing down service is another crucial aspect of logistical planning. » Address concerns about discipline and behavior head-on: A common perception is that the Umbrella Model will lead to disciplinary issues due to more students staying afterschool. However, pilot schools reported that they did not experience any additional disciplinary problems. And, by taking a proactive approach, pilot participants said that they also successfully managed issues like waste. Still, it is crucial to have the support of the school’s administration, staff members or volunteers who stay afterschool. » Engage a champion to coordinate efforts: The supper program is most successful when someone takes the lead on coordinating the efforts of the foodservice, afterschool programs, athletics and custodial staffs. An influential staff member can facilitate conversations between groups to ensure that everyone feels invested in the program. Additionally, promotional efforts can be initiated among both staff and students. » Keep up the communication: After gaining initial buy-in, it’s still important to have regular check-ins and open communication channels with all stakeholders. Watson worked with coaches to develop an ordering system so that she could prepare and deliver the correct number of meals based on sports’ practices and game schedules. » Promote, promote, promote: When opening up meals to the entire student body, it is important to raise awareness among students. Feel free to engage students with creative promotions, school-wide announcements, word-of-mouth and social media, too! » Keep in touch with your state agency: As with most changes in your operations—and especially ones that involve significant modifications to service and record-keeping procedures—it’s important to communicate with your state agency in advance. Working collaboratively will strengthen your program and prevent surprises during audits. School nutrition professionals always understand the need to nourish students in their community. Supper is an ideal addition to your nutrition program portfolio in eligible schools. Whether your district is starting their CACFP application or looking to expand their participation, consider the Umbrella Model as a way to maximize participation and win over the administration. Donna Martin, RDN, SNS, director of school nutrition programs in the Burke County (Ga.) School District reflects, “Doing this program gives you a lot of kudos and recognition within the district. By doing supper, you get a lot of capital.” What could be better than that? THERE ARE NO RAINCHECKS: BRUSH UP ON THE FACTS 92% of children from low-income families eat some food afterschool and before dinner. Usually, it includes unhealthy foods such as chips, cookies or candy. 87% of low-income families purchase food for their children to eat afterschool instead of getting meals or snacks from their child’s school or afterschool program. $400 is the median amount of money that low-income families spend per year on food for their children to eat afterschool. The average is over $700 per year. 59% of low-income families say that tight budgets make it tough to provide food for their children to eat afterschool. 25% of low-income families worry that their children don’t have enough to eat between lunch and breakfast the following day. Source: No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices in partnership with APCO Insights (2014). “National Afterschool Meals Program Survey Findings.” https://bestpractices.nokidhungry.org/afterschool/afterschool-meals-survey-findings. Laura Hatch is director, national partnerships for Share Our Strength. Carolyn Wait is senior manager, Center for Best Practices, Share Our Strength. Graphic on page 23 provided by Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry.
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