More Atlanta school districts add dinner to menu to meet student needs

Kindergartener Azaria Youg, left, and second grade student James Nyamekye grab their after-school meals in the cafeteria at Burnett Elementary School in Douglasville on Feb. 15. Douglas County Schools has begun providing early dinners to students who stay after school for activities. EMILY HANEY /

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Kindergartener Azaria Youg, left, and second grade student James Nyamekye grab their after-school meals in the cafeteria at Burnett Elementary School in Douglasville on Feb. 15. Douglas County Schools has begun providing early dinners to students who stay after school for activities. EMILY HANEY /

One recent Friday afternoon at Burnett Elementary School in Douglasville, about two dozen students lined up in the cafeteria for what amounts to a new frontier in the district’s school-supported meals.

The grab-and-go plate of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, orange slices, celery sticks and cartoned milk is part of a new program to serve dinner to Douglas County Schools students in need. Burnett Fourth-grader Christopher Depaz, 9, approves.

“It used to be that as soon as I got home, I would be so hungry and I would open up the refrigerator and eat whatever I could,” he said.

Efforts to affect student outcomes began with schools offering free and reduced-price lunch as part of The National School Lunch Act, passed in 1946. Dinner programs, and similar initiatives popping up across metro Atlanta, are recognition by education leaders that they can do more to fulfill student needs.

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Metro school districts offer free lunch for students

Douglas began serving dinners earlier in February. Atlanta Public Schools quietly started serving dinner to students four years ago and has expanded the effort to nearly three dozen schools. DeKalb County School District officials are testing a dinner program at one elementary school where they feed students and their families, with hopes to expand that program.

“We have a number of students where dinner for them is a bag of Cheetos and a soft drink,” said Vasanne Tinsley, the DeKalb County School District’s deputy superintendent for student support and intervention. “It is happening because of some financial issues with some of our families. This is an extended layer of wraparound support to at least make sure they have a healthy dinner, a balanced dinner.”

School food programs around the country have long included lunch and breakfast. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services division, 17 Georgia school districts are participating in an At Risk After School Meal component of the department’s Child and Adult Care Food Program, with 16 saying they provide dinner meals at 77 schools. During the 2017-2018 school year, participating school districts said they served approximately 554,000 dinners. That does not include schools that serve meals through other programs, provided through other sponsorships.

About 62 percent of students enrolled in Douglas County Schools are on free and reduced lunch. At Burnett Elementary, the number rises to 89 percent.

Twenty-seven schools in the district with afterschool programs are currently providing dinner at no cost to students or their families. In the past, children enrolled in after-care activities would receive a small snack — usually a juice and crackers — to hold them over, according to Danielle Scott-Freeman, the district’s executive director of student nutrition. But children were eating lunch around noon —at 11 a.m. in some instances — and staying for afterschool activities that kept them on campus as late as 6 p.m.

“If you are staying after school for tutorial or athletics, chess club or another club, you have a child who has not eaten since noon or even earlier and if you are a growing a child, you are hungry,” Scott-Freeman said. “And a snack was a little something, but not enough.”

The district received about $600,000 through the USDA afterschool meals program, and will serve meals through the end of the school year.

Some districts are also sending food home with students and their families. Gwinnett County Schools recently announced a Market Day program at Graves Elementary School on Norcross through the Atlanta Community Food Bank, where parents can "shop" for both perishable and non-perishable items that serve five to seven meals per household. For most shoppers it amounts to 40 to 50 pounds of food with about a quarter of it being fresh produce. In January, about 70 families participated in the January Market Day event. Market Day events will take place at Graves on the third Thursday of each month.

Clayton County Schools officials said they offer an after-school backpack program where students receive nonperishable items to help with meals on the weekends. Since 2009, several schools have had food pantries to help children and families through the community.

Similar backpack programs and food pantries have popped up in schools across DeKalb County to provide food for families to use after school and on weekends.

In October, DeKalb’s Princeton Elementary School began testing a program to provide dinner to students and their families.

The program is through Georgia’s Bright From the Start, part of the state’s Department of Early Care and Learning, which has programs that help districts work to meet child care and early education needs for Georgia children and their families. District officials hope the program gets federal approval soon, which would allow the district to expand to other schools.

"It has gone very well," said Tinsley, the deputy superintendent for student support and intervention. "The parents are very appreciative. That demographic (around Princeton Elementary) is one in which some of the students may not receive healthy meals when they go home."

More often, Tinsley said, students are living in food deserts — where they live more than a mile from a store providing fresh produce — as well as socioeconomic changes where more of the district’s students are living in poverty.

“I think we’re able to fill a void,” she said. “Right now, there’s a need for districts to think outside the box to support our students. That way, we can positively impact academic achievement of our students.”

Staff writer Arlinda Smith Broady contributed to this story.