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Menu Trendwatch: After School Meal Programs Have a Growth Spurt

Menu Trendwatch: After School Meal Programs Have a Growth Spurt

New legislation coupled with the rough economic climate means that more than just snack are being offered after school by schools and other entities.

After school programs that serve snacks provide nutrition for children and also a safe place for them to go before working parents can pick them up. These programs are increasing in number and reach, offering opportunities for both school nutrition departments and other foodservice providers that can produce program compliant snacks and meals.

The number of school nutrition programs operating after-school snack programs increased from 42 percent in 2006 to 47 percent in 2007 and jumped again to 51 percent in 2009, according to the School Nutrition Association's 2009 Operations Report. That rate of increase shows no signs of slowing down, and these programs could soon be doing even more to enhance the nutrition of children in need.

“Not just snacks, but after school meals will be a key trend in the future,” says Erik Peterson, policy director, Afterschool Alliance, an organization that advocates for more after school program investment and partners with more than 25,000 after school programs.

The likelihood there will be more funding for the expansion of such programs in more states, “would allow them to offer more snack components, receive additional reimbursement, and ultimately give millions of low income students in after school programs access to a nutritious meal during out-of-school hours,” Peterson says.

Many say the National School Lunch Program's Afterschool Snack Program is underutilized. Based on USDA data, more than 1.2 million children receive a snack after school every day and an additional 247,151 receive a daily after school snack through USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). But looking more closely, more than 8 million children participate in after school programs, with more than 40 percent of them eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“I'd encourage districts to get more involved in these programs,” says Katie Wilson, Phd, a former SNA president and longtime school nutrition practitioner and advocate. “After school snacks can play a vital role in adding to the nutritional quality of a student's day.”

Earlier this summer, Wilson stepped into her new role as executive director of the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI), located at the University of Mississippi and funded by a grant administered through USDA's Food and Nutrition Services division.

“There can be limitations on budget, facilities, and more for after school snack programs, but people should look into the kind of assistance for which they are eligible,” Wilson says.

The Basics of Offering After School Snacks

Non-school foodservice operations sometimes find that such programs offer a customer base for their additional central production capacity. Such is the case for Concordia College Dining Services, Moorhead, MN, which contracts with several area daycare programs to provide meals and snacks.

“We started with a daycare center here on campus that is open to the public and serves faculty, staff and students,” says Vanessa Berg, MS LRD, its contract manager. “Then we began serving a few more daycare centers in the area.”

The college's biggest contract is with the region's YMCA daycare programs, which serves meals and snacks to 1,500 children, Berg says. The daycare centers get reimbursement from the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and some summer programs the college works with get USDA reimbursement. In both cases, the daycare centers pay Concordia and are reimbursed separately.

“The requirements for CACFP and USDA for snacks are very similar, so it's not hard to make sure that we meet those requirements,” Berg says. Snacks must have two components, and only one can be a beverage.

“Typically, the snack is a combination of milk and an item made with enriched grain like animal crackers,” she says. “We also do a lot of fruits and vegetables. Watermelon wedges, apples slices, carrot sticks, cucumber slices, jicama slices, and fresh broccoli and cauliflower all work well.”

“Kids love to dip,” Berg says, so vegetables usually come with ranch or hummus dip.

The tight financials also mean Berg must keep a close eye on costs.

“When we offer a higher cost item like string cheese during the week, we offset that with something lower in cost later in the week,” she says. “Enriched grain baked goods, like muffins, are a lower cost item that kids like.”

Concordia works with its food distributors (“They're always coming up with new products that meet USDA requirements,” Berg says) to find prepackaged snacks.

Another after school program that has found success with pre-packaged snacks is the Alexandria City Public Schools (VA). Children there eat pre-packaged combination packs of cheese and juice; crackers and juice; or cookies and juice that meet USDA requirements, and are served three times a week.

Going beyond snacks to meals, the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) emphasizes that such meals need not be complicated. FRAC offers an example of a simple after school meal as: a ham sandwich, cucumber slices, an apple and a carton of low-fat milk.

For those wanting to start an after school snack program, or improve on an existing program, SNA offers a toolkit with best practice tips, sample menus and tips of marketing your after school program. Find the tool kit at www.schoolnutrition.org.

The Legislative Side of After School

If the House of Representatives adopts the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act recently passed by the Senate, as many observers expect, this updated version of the Child Nutrition Act will provide additional funding for child nutrition programs that includes more reimbursement for after-school snacks. It also should encourage more districts to provide after-school nutrition to low-income children and would also expand CACFP suppers nationally.

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For the past several years, appropriation bills have modified the program to permit several states to receive reimbursement for a full meal in addition to a snack, according to an Aug. 5 Legislative Bulletin from the Democratic Policy Committee. For more information, go to dpc.senate.gov.

The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) provides federal funds to after school programs to serve meals to children age 12 and under (a few states currently have a program for children age 18 and under) during the school year. The meals can be served at any time during the after school program. Some schools serve the meals closer to traditional dinner time, and others choose to serve the meals right after the school day ends.

Longtime school nutrition consultant Barry Sackin, president of B. Sackin & Associates, also predicts an increase of the need for — and the funding for — such after school programs in the future.

“My crystal ball tells me after school programs are going to continue to expand,” says Sackin. “The way the economy is, with both parents working sometimes two jobs, I just don't see a widespread return of the stay-at-home mom.”

FM IDEAS

Build Your Own Snack Fun:

Katie Wilson's “From Earth to Sky” Snack Blueprint

At Katie Wilson's former school district, she saw great success and a good learning opportunity with this snack idea that got kids thinking, participating and snacking.

From Earth to Sky Veggie Snack Combo:

Seed = pumpkin or pomegranate seeds

Root = beets, radishes or carrots

Stem = celery

Leaf = parsley or cilantro

Flower = broccoli or cauliflower

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