Students at Capitol Hill High School don’t just have access to a hot, nutritionally balanced breakfast and lunch. Now, they can also get supper.
The south Oklahoma City school recently embarked on a pilot program that offers free dinner for all students. Launched in early February, it’s part of an effort by Oklahoma City Public Schools to fight food insecurity—a significant problem throughout the state. Oklahoma consistently ranks among the top five states in the number of people who are hungry, and one in four Oklahoma children are at risk for going to bed without a meal, according to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma. “We were already implementing an after-school snack program, and we wanted to expand it even more,” says Kevin Ponce, school nutrition services director.
A full 90 percent of Capitol Hill’s students are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches. But the after-school meals, which are served from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., are available to all students—including those who attend other schools in the district. All they have to do is show up, add their name to a sign-in sheet and eat their meal in the cafeteria. (Food can’t be taken to go.)
Capitol Hill cafeteria staff serving nachos for supper.
In the two months since the program began, Ponce and his team are already seeing early signs of success. “Kids just come up and say thank you, because they don’t [otherwise] have a chance to eat,” Ponce says. “So we’re already seeing the benefits. Kids don’t have to go to the vending machines now.” Currently, around 150 meals are served daily.
The benefits have been particularly big for Capitol Hill’s student-athletes. The free suppers serve as wholesome pregame meals, helping to ensure that players are fueled up before they head out onto the field or court. The meals are also an opportunity for coaches to counsel players on the importance of healthy eating. “They’re being educated on how nutrition can enhance their athletic performance,” says Sports Nutrition Specialist Jeffrey Tamayo, RD. Athletes also learn about the best foods for speeding recovery after games and practice, along with the importance of staying adequately hydrated.
Like Capitol Hill’s lunch offerings, supper meals are designed to be nutritionally balanced. “They’re low in saturated fat, rich in whole grains and offer an abundance of antioxidants from fruit and vegetables,” Tamayo says. Typical menu items include chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans, or nachos with salsa and a veggie cup. Supper is always different than the day’s lunch offerings.
Providing students with a third daily meal has the potential to have a significant impact on their health and well-being, as well as their ability to learn and succeed in school. And the burden on implementing the program has been minor. All of the meals are federally reimbursed, and Capitol Hill hasn’t had to pay staff more for supper service. “Staff hours are staggered for a large school like Capitol Hill,” Ponce says. Cafeteria employees work the same number of hours as before, those on supper service just work a later shift. So instead of working breakfast and lunch, some staff come in to work lunch and supper.
The program is still new, so uncertainties remain. Ponce and his team don’t know whether participation will remain high year-round. “Student-athletes are a major source of participation. With the varied sports throughout the year, the participation may change,” he says. Still, Ponce is optimistic that the program will continue to grow as word spreads throughout the district.
Ponce hopes to soon bring supper service to other district schools. “We’ve already looked at an elementary school that has an after-school program. But to expand it, we’ll need higher participation,” he says. Operations Coordinator Otis Moses, who directly oversees the supper program, hopes to begin recruiting community volunteers as well. Volunteers already order pizza or takeout for some of the school’s sports teams before games. Instead of running their own pregame meals (which volunteers pay for out-of-pocket), they could help serve the free meals that are already being prepared for the school supper program. Teams could then put the funds that would’ve been spent on pregame food toward other uses, like equipment or travel.
The result would be a boost in program participation, which would encourage expansion to other district school. Plus, student-athletes would get to fuel up with meals that are healthy and nutritionally balanced. “It’s a win-win,” says Ponce.