The Kansas City Kansas (KCK) Public Schools operates one of the more comprehensive after-school meal programs in the country, serving up to 1,500 meals on a given day. The district does this by partnering with a wide range of after-school programs, mostly at school sites but also a few in other venues like libraries.
“Our supper meal program is a branch of our school nutrition program in which we try to recruit existing after-school programs such as football teams, cheerleading programs, running programs, band and other programs,” explains Josh Mathiasmeier, director of nutritional services for the district. “The majority are school organizations, but we do have some run by outside organizations. We also serve to libraries in our community. The only stipulation is that they have some sort of education or enrichment piece to their program.”
The snacks and supper meals are provided at no cost to the host and all children 18 or under are eligible.
The program launched modestly with only a couple of programs participating in the 2013-2014 school year, “but we’ve continued to increase the number of sites and programs we have and the number of meals that we serve,” Mathiasmeier says. The after-school meals service currently operates with over 150 programs at between 20 and 30 sites.
“I think the next avenue for us is getting out to the community and finding places where kids are gathering after school and figuring out whether we can provide meals to them,” Mathiasmeier offers. “So are they going to churches or community centers after school to have some sort of event or activity and can we provide them meals there?”
The food is produced in KCK’s central kitchen and everything is either cold or shelf-stable for food safety reasons, though Mathiasmeier has ambitions to add a hot meal option at some point. Much of what is served comes pre-packaged from vendors and simply assembled, but the kitchen also makes some of the meal components such as sandwiches itself.
Deliveries have generally been made by the nutrition department’s own vehicles as part of their routes to supply the district’s 53 sites with regular schoolday meals, with non-school locations like libraries added on to the nearest route. Now, there is a special supper route “because our program is so extensive that we were able to justify and have the need for a route that is dedicated only to the delivery of those meals,” Mathiasmeier says.
Participation fluctuates with the seasons, especially athletic seasons as these draw large groups of youngsters for their activities.
The program uses the larger meal pattern of the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program to ensure adequate portions for all participating kids, and sticks to finger food-type items that are easy to deal with.
“It’s a lot of quick and easy-eating foods on the go because we know these programs [prefer] a quick eat and then back to a practice or tutoring or programming or whatever they are doing,” Mathiasmeier says.
The selections range from snack combos like a muffin, graham crackers or cheese and crackers with milk to full meals such as a sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk and muffins. The decision on whether a snack or a meal is offered at a particular site is up the individual program administrator there and the amount of time the program can allocate to letting kids sit and eat.
“Some have only a few minutes to allocate to kids getting a quick snack while others can let the kids sit and eat a meal for 20 minutes or more,” Mathiasmeier says.
The key to the success of an after-school meals program like the one at KCK Schools is “making that connection to the buildings and connecting with athletic directors and principals and teachers to make sure they know the services are available and they’re free and easy,” Mathiasmeier stresses. He cites instances of teachers who buy snacks for their students out of their own pockets, snacks that may sometimes not be the healthiest options, noting that the after-school program not only offers a free alternative but also one guaranteed to provide only healthy fare.
“Our goal in the nutrition services department is to serve nutritious, healthy food to students in our community,” Mathiasmeier explains. “Food insecurity here is very high, so with the summer meal program and the supper meal program, we’re trying to bridge those gaps between the [school day] school nutrition program [and cover] weekends, nights, summers and we’re trying to figure ways to close those gaps.”