Maggie Den Harder is an intern with Oklahoma Policy Institute and a Masters of Public Administration student at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
In Oklahoma school meal programs are vital to helping children who are food insecure get reliable access to nutritious meals. Schools offer breakfast and lunch as a matter of course, but some districts are going a step further and providing after-school meals. In Oklahoma City Public Schools, Capitol Hill High School is testing a pilot program providing dinner at school at no cost to students who choose to participate. Similarly, Shawnee Public Schools provides an “enhanced snack” to students at the end of the school day. The pilot programs set a good example for how we can better feed hungry children across the state.
More than 8 in 10 students in Oklahoma City Public schools qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, and administrators recognized that for many students, two school meals a day still meant many were at risk of going to bed hungry. To combat hunger and meet the needs of students, the OKC school board voted in 2016 to begin a pilot supper program at Capitol Hill High School, using funds available through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).
Despite only beginning in February, the supper program is already meeting the needs of about 10 percent of Capitol Hill students each day — approximately 100 students, according to OKCPS’s Nutrition Services, although participation occasionally reaches twice as many. The supper program benefits food insecure students as well as those engaging in afterschool activities like football and band practice. Through the flexibility provided by federal reimbursement programs, OKCPS has been able to tailor a program to meet their students’ needs.
Shawnee Public Schools (SPS) is another example of a school responding creatively to student food insecurity. Shawnee was an early adopter of Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a program allowing high-poverty schools and districts to offer breakfast and lunch to all students at no cost to the students. SPS has found that with CEP, students are eating healthier meals and more food, and schools are saving time and money as a result. The district’s Child Nutrition department has now begun distributing what they call an “Enhanced Snack” to between 10,000 and 25,000 students throughout their district each week. Reimbursement for the enhanced snack also uses funds available through the Child and Adult Care Food Program. By participating in this program, SPS can serve the snack at any point during after-school activities. Per the USDA’s standards, a typical after-school snack is relatively skimpy, providing just two of the four components—dairy, whole grains, protein, and fruits and vegetables—needed to qualify for reimbursement. Instead, SPS’s enhanced snack is a non-heated meal with a hearty offering of foods containing all four components.
Shawnee Public Schools’ enhanced snack program is another example how schools can work within federal school meal reimbursement program requirements to make them work for their communities. Both Shawnee Public Schools and OKCPS have been able to design programs that work for them. Schools can select, apply, and adjust meal programs to fit their students’ needs.
Using federal nutrition programs to meet the needs of hungry children is a good deal for Oklahoma children, families, and schools. School meals allow children to focus on learning rather than hunger pangs. Federal programs like the Child and Adult Care Food Program seek to fill the hunger gap faced by many children. Programs like Oklahoma City’s supper program and Shawnee’s enhanced snack are just two examples of how schools are addressing food insecurity and hunger. Other schools should consider adopting similar programming. When nearly 1 in 4 children statewide may not have enough to eat, child nutrition programs offer one way for schools to make a difference.