Photo by Max Klingensmith/Flickr

For District Schools, Another Challenge: Hungry Students

When the school bell rings, nonprofits provide safety net for hungry students.

By D’Ante Smith and Tiffany Wong

As two school buses pulled around a corner on 14th Street in Northeast D.C., a gaggle of elementary students in uniform polos ran into open arms as others ventured into the off-white, institutional painted apartment complexes that lined the street. Neighbors greeted each other as a crowd of people stood outside the back entrance to Brentwood Liquors
store. Directly across the street, kids from the buses entered the Brookland Manor Community Center. There, students do homework, tend their corner community garden, play basketball and learn about healthy eating habits. The center is one of the Capital Area Food Bank’s 31 Kids Cafe sites that are found in schools, community centers and churches across the District, where at least 50 percent of a school’s students are on a free or reduced school lunches, according to Kids Cafe guidelines. Like other Cafes, Brookland Manor provides snacks and often a hot supper using ingredients from Business Food Solutions, a vendor headquartered in Baltimore. Fresh salads and baked chicken drumsticks are typical fare for the Cafes. “At every stage of a human being’s development, food and nutrition is absolutely critical,” said Nancy Roman, the president and chief executive officer of Capital Area Food Bank, a distributor to hunger-relief organizations in D.C. Approximately one in eight households are deemed food insecure in D.C., and in households with children, the number jumps to one in three who are food insecure—which is second in the nation, according to a research study done by the U.S Department of Agriculture. “The rate tends to fluctuate year over year, but the trend has been that we [D.C.] either have the worst childhood food hardship rate or the second worst,” said Paula Reichel, the director of the Capital Area Food Bank, in an email. Despite the harrowing number of food insecure children, programs in and outside of District schools are determined to not only satiate their eager eaters, but also to provide a source of nutrition that D.C.’s kids may not find at home.

‘Kids don’t stop being hungry. They just stop getting fed at school, and that’s a huge issue, not even just in the District. It’s everywhere.’

— Bob Bloomer

Budget cuts lead to increased student meal services

On Feb. 7, President Obama signed the Agricultural Act of 2014, which reduced SNAP benefits by roughly $90 per household. Soon after, organizations including the Capital Area Food Bank noticed an increase in hungry students. At one Ward 8 Kids Cafe, servings jumped from 40 to 90 meals a day following the SNAP reduction. Four or five other Kids Cafe sites saw participation increase by 15 meals or more, Reichel said. “It’s hard to tell precisely how much of that [increase to Kids Cafe] is owing to SNAP versus owing to unemployment or other factors that are affecting the economy,” Roman said. “But you know for certain that if people were getting dollars for food assistance and they are not getting those dollars anymore, they need additional support getting food.”

A bagged solution to weekend hunger

In areas of D.C. where most students receive free or reduced school lunches, many of them also struggle with finding sustenance on Saturdays and Sundays. “At the beginning of the year, we were sending 1,800 bags out weekly and now we’re up to 2,000,” said Lavette Sims, the director of distributions for Capital Area Food Bank. Weekend Bag is a program created by Capital Area Food Bank that provides non-perishable items that can be prepared throughout the weekend before students return to school. The bags typically include breakfast items, milk, protein, grain, fruit and snacks, which are purchased by or donated to the Capital Area Food Bank, Reichel said. “The Weekend Bag is a popular program for people to support because they know that the food goes directly to the children,” Sims said. The program successfully feeds children for the two days they are out of school, but the Capital Area Food Bank recently realized that many families have become reliant on one bag to feed more than one child. Some bags are consumed by whole families. The Capital Area Food Bank is looking to see if there is a model that not only supports the child, but also a family.

Feeding students in public schools

D.C.’s public schools also play a large role in feeding the city’s children through the National School Lunch Program and the district’s Public School Nutrition Standards before, during and after school. Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality is one of three companies that provides food for D.C. public schools and currently oversees food distribution at 107 D.C. schools. Chartwells provides lunches, free breakfasts, snacks and suppers at schools that have educational components in their after-school activities, said Bob Bloomer, the Chartwells regional director for the district. Chartwells creates menus that meet national grain, protein, vegetable and fruit requirements of the USDA’s National School Lunch and Breakfast Program while keeping nutritional value in mind. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act is another piece of legislation that Chartwells abides by, requiring schools to have different fruits every day of the week and to have fresh fruits available at least twice per week. Apples and apple sauce would not be served in the same week, Bloomer said. “We give the kids a variety every day.”

Inside a classroom. Photo by Daniel Gasienica/Flickr.

Inside a classroom. Photo by Daniel Gasienica/Flickr.

Meat and other proteins come from approved corporate suppliers, according to Bloomer. Fresh produce is distributed by local vendors and Chartwells’ minimally processed, frozen vegetables and canned beans come from various sources. “We have a wide range of schools in DCPS with different needs, so we try to allow our schools to offer programs that are right for them,” said Elizabeth Leach, the manager of compliance in DC Public Schools’ Office of Food and Nutrition Services. Community preferences and needs are considered when introducing meal programs in public schools and neighborhoods, according to Bloomer. In certain wards in D.C., students snack on fresh baby carrots with light dressing and eat dinner at home, while in others, students chow down on chicken lettuce wraps and return home full. “We take this very seriously because we know that in so many cases, we are the prime nutrition for children,” Bloomer said.

Students take breaks, but meal programs do not

When schools get out in June, school cafeterias are still open and offer free summer meals through the D.C. Free Summer Meal Program. Because the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs are not available during academic breaks, the USDA has worked with schools in low-income areas to provide sustenance for its students, according to the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Chartwells has several pilot programs, including a meal program being tested in one school that will give food insecure students the option of coming in to eat during their spring break, Bloomer said.

‘We take this very seriously because we know that in so many cases, we are the prime nutrition for children.’

– Bloomer

Another program that Chartwells hopes to test this summer is Lunch on the Playground, which would lower the security risk of having unknown students entering school buildings during the summer and would alleviate some of the qualms of having to go to school in the summertime. “I think a lot of it is the stigma of going into a school building when you don’t have to,” Bloomer said. “I get that. I wouldn’t want to have to go to summer school if I didn’t have to. We do need to reach more kids, though.” Capital Area Food Bank also provides meals during the summer through their Summer Food Service Program. All who participate in their Kids Cafe or Weekend Bag programs can participate, Reichel said. Regardless of its locations, meal programs across D.C. are determined to tackle childhood hunger, in and out of schools. “Kids don’t stop being hungry,” Bloomer said. “They just stop getting fed at school and that’s a huge issue, not even just in the district. It’s everywhere.”