Schools serve dinner to thousands in state
SMITHERS, W.Va. - It looks like any other line of students waiting to be fed.
They jostle and laugh with one another as they bide their time in the Valley High School cafeteria. Cafeteria worker Nancy Minter passes out Styrofoam trays of pizza, corn and orange slices. Before sitting down, students grab small plastic bottles of white or chocolate milk.
Just like any other school meal.
Except this one is after school, every day. And it costs students nothing.
It's not just happening in Fayette County. Last school year 99 schools in 23 counties served close to a quarter million supper meals through the at-risk supper program, said Rick Goff, executive director of the state's office of child nutrition.
"It's just another avenue for us to be able to meet their nutritional needs," Goff said. "(Students) hit the door and they're starving when they get home from school."
West Virginia schools have served supper since about 2005, Goff said. The at-risk supper program is federally funded, with counties receiving meal reimbursement similar to that given through the free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast plans, he said.
To qualify for the supper program, 50 percent or more of a school's population must be eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, he said. If that's the case, any student at that school can eat a free supper, he said.
However, any student who does so must also be enrolled in an academically enriching after-school program. Football or band doesn't count, Goff said. It has to be some form of tutoring or academically oriented activity, like German Club.
Goff said the point of the meal is not to force students into such programs. David Seay, director of food services in Fayette County, is confident the food has increased involvement in the programs, however.
"With 65 percent of our kids below the poverty line, we're pretty confident that third meal of the day is quite an incentive for them," Seay said.
This is the third year Fayette County has participated in the program. More than 34,000 meals were served at the seven schools offering the program last year, according to data provided by Goff.
All of those meals contain five nutritional components: a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, milk and meat or protein substitute. Minter prepares the food every day, coming to the school in the afternoon specifically to make supper.
"I'm the good lunch lady because I get to feed them three times a day," Minter said.
It's her second year making the after-school meals, and she said she loves interacting with the students. About 85 students eat the meals every day, and she said they're all very appreciative.
Minter said she rarely has any issues with students not wanting what she's prepared. There is one student who gets a little sick if he eats pork, so Minter always has an alternative ready if he asks.
She sets the menu a week ahead of time. Special meals are planned for Thursdays and Fridays, when the middle school and high school football teams play games. Tonight she's having baked chicken, mashed potatoes, rolls and vegetables. Sometimes they'll have steak for such meals, she said.
Counties can claim $2.86 reimbursement for each supper, Goff said. Valley High Principal Lee Loy said bigger meals at the end of the week would not be possible without donations from local parents.
The parents will either help cook the meal, or donate food or money, he said. He encourages parent involvement in any regard, but hopes the meal help continues after football season ends. The after-school tutoring program really picks up in October, and the number of students looking for a school supper increases in the winter, he said.
As far as Minter can tell, no one gets picked on for taking the free meal. She can't tell which students actually qualify and said she tries to greet each student with a smile.
"You just don't know which ones. . .are having trouble at home," she said.
There can be a stigma involved with free and reduced-price meals, Seay said, adding the number of applications for the program tends to be lower at the high school level.
"I wish our county was more prosperous and kids and families didn't need to be on the free and reduced meal program, but it is what it is," Seay said. "We enjoy the fact that we can provide those meals to those kids."
Last year was the first time Wayne County participated in the program, said county food services director Brenda Arrowood. It served more than 31,500 suppers at 16 schools. Two more schools are participating this year, and Arrowood is confident the number of meals served is going to rise.
'There's definitely a need. Our whole county is at 58 percent needy at this time," she said.
Wayne County students generally receive bag meals, she said. They consist of a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk. A salad option is offered once a week.
The county doesn't have the staff to provide hot meals after school every day, but any food is better than none, in Arrowood's opinion.
"I feel (the program) was very successful, and it was very well received by the administration," she said.
In total, 224,347 suppers were served last school year. And that's paltry compared to the number of meals served to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast, Goff said.
The state served about 35 million lunches last year, and roughly 65 percent went to needy students, Goff said. Of the 15 million breakfasts served, he thought 70 percent went to children in need. That number will only increase this year with breakfast programs expanding throughout the state, he said.
Last year 52.8 percent of West Virginia students - more than 150,000 - applied and qualified for free and reduced-price meals, according to data provided by Goff. Of the state's 55 counties, only six had less than half of their students apply for free or reduced-price meals.
Goff is confident more students qualify but don't apply and more counties could offer the supper program.
"We could do a lot better," he said.