Schools invite kids to stay for supper
by Emily Scheie
Posted 1/20/15, 05:27 pm
More schools across the country are serving students not just breakfast and lunch, but supper as well. Serving supper at school can help eradicate child hunger, draw students into after-school programs, promote healthy eating, and boost school budgets. But the growing trend could chip away at an important aspect of a child’s life—the family dinner.
For years, schools have fed many students breakfast and lunch. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National School Lunch Program served almost 5 billion lunches during the 2014 fiscal year, over 63 percent of them free, and the School Breakfast Program served about 2.25 billion breakfasts, over 77 percent of them free.
Though the number of dinners served hasn’t reached such proportions, in 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act expanded the Afterschool Meal Program to all 50 states after piloting it in 13 states and Washington D.C. Under the act, the USDA reimburses educational and enrichment after-school programs for feeding students a balanced supper when at least half the students in the area qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.
In Maryland, one of the pilot states, after-school programs served 387,905 reimbursable meals in the 2009-10 school year, according to a report by Maryland Hunger Solutions. By 2011-12, that number had grown to almost 2 million meals.
Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the country, announced it was expanding its After School Supper Program. It aims to boost participation by 36 percent, up from the 70,000 suppers it currently serves across 584 schools each day, according to a news release.
Advocates say serving supper at after-school programs not only assures children nutritious food, but it also boosts participation and retention rates in such programs as well. This puts students in a supervised setting after school, “the peak period for juvenile crime and experimentation with cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, and sex,” according to the Maryland Hunger Solutions report.
Many states and schools also see the USDA-funded Afterschool Meals Program as a way to boost their budgets. “For schools, every child counts and so does every dollar,” says the No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices website.
Some students say the suppers are more like a snack and don’t replace their dinner. But conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh say schools are taking over what should be a parent’s responsibility. “Why even send the kids home?” Limbaugh asked in 2011.
Others say schools serving supper could draw families together. “If these meals help alleviate stress, it could actually be good and open up more time for families,” said Rachel Dunifon, a policy professor at Cornell University.
Yet much research suggests family dinners have positive benefits on children, such as increasing academic achievement, decreasing delinquency, and building good relationships. Last week, The Washington Post ran an article by Anne Fishel, an associate clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and a founding member of The Family Dinner Project. The article is entitled “The most important thing you can do with your kids? Eat dinner with them,” and discusses research on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of sharing dinner as a family.
In a 2012 report, Dunifon and Eliza Cook from Cornell University questioned whether there’s anything special about sharing a meal or whether the benefits instead come from other factors found in the type of families that eat dinner together.
Dunifon and Cook reference recent research showing “family dinners are linked to lower levels of depressive symptoms … but are not linked to substance use or delinquent behaviors.” Nonetheless, they conclude, “While research on family meals is still evolving, and scholars face challenges in identifying the ‘true’ effects of family meals, evidence to date suggests that family meals do provide benefits for children and youth.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Emily is a World Journalism Institute intern.