At some schools in Santa Rosa County School District, lunch isn’t the last meal of the school day.
This past year, the Florida district expanded its after-school snack program to provide free meals at certain locations.
Elementary schools involved in the program offer items such as Buffalo chicken wraps and chicken Caesar wraps, while high school students have access to a fresh sub bar that offers made-to-order sandwiches.
To become involved, 50% of the school’s population must qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and the school must have some type of after-school enrichment initiative on campus. The program is currently offered at seven elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school.
Though it launched a few years ago, the dining team recently concluded that students needed more nutrition than the snacks being served could offer them, said Leslie Bell, Sodexo’s child nutrition director for the district.
“We realized that we had a lot of food insecurity in our neighborhoods and in our communities, and we realized that we needed to increase the nutrition value of those meals,” she said.
For elementary and middle school students, lunch is typically eaten early, and by the time classes end for the day, students may be hungry again. High schoolers, on the other hand, often have extracurricular activities, and their day doesn’t end as soon as school gets out.
“The most important thing is that we are providing nutrition in the afternoons when children need it just as much as they do during the school day. And then it benefits the families in our communities in need,” said Bell. “We’re providing a meal free of charge. For some families, economically, that is a benefit to them. That’s one less meal that they have to think about or about worry about in the afternoons in today’s inflation prices and economic challenges.”
In the future, Bell hopes to expand the program to more schools, especially as the number of qualifying schools increases. Bell noted that while Santa Rosa County’s free- and reduced-qualifying population is not especially high, there are disadvantaged areas throughout the county.
“Even in some of our more affluent areas, there’s pockets of need,” she said. “We’re trying to capture every one of those groups.”
Bell said she has received positive feedback from both administrators and parents, noting that some parents find solace in the fact that their students aren’t eating fast food after school.
“The child’s not running off pulling into a drive through somewhere at a fast-food place. They know what they’re getting here is nutritionally sound and it's economically better for them,” said Bell. “Administration likes it because they recognize that when a child is not hungry and they’re well fed, that it helps them behaviorally: It helps with attendance, it helps with illnesses. So that’s helping on the academic level from the administrative side.”