Witnessing Child Hunger Firsthand and Tapping Federal Funding for Afterschool Meals

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County’s annual Steak & Burger Dinner provides children, donors and guests with an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of members attending local clubs in the cities of Aberdeen, Bel Air, Edgewood and Havre de Grace, Md.  Attendees eat, listen to speeches and watch as one accomplished young person receives the coveted Youth of the Year award.

Last year’s event, however, stood out in the minds of many in the community for a different reason.  At the dinner, a nine-year-old girl sat with friends and a few adults, and when she thought no one was looking, took the steak off her plate and put it in her pocket. But the adults did see.  The girl explained that she was taking it home to give to her sister so she could eat that night. The adults told her that she needed to eat, too, and to go up to the buffet line and get another steak.  “We’ll wrap it up in a napkin,” they said. “And you can take it home.”

“This was an eye-opening circumstance for the adults about the lives young people live,” said Tim Willis, associate executive director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Harford County.  “A lot of people in the community weren’t aware that oftentimes the only meals kids had were breakfast and lunch at school.”

A Nutrition Gap After School

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that in 2010, of the 48.8 million people living in food insecure households, 16.2 million were children.

The harmful effects of food insecurity go beyond empty stomachs.  Children without regular access to healthy meals are more likely to struggle in school and are more at risk of being obese, since their families may opt to buy cheaper foods with limited nutritional value.

It begs the question, in a country where 40 percent of our food goes to waste, why is childhood hunger so prevalent?

In Willis’ experience, a lot of parents in Harford County work long hours, and many work shifts from noon or 1:00 p.m. to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.  Parents are not able to cook a meal in the evening for their kids.  They pick up their children from the club during their break, take them home, and then head back to work.

What Can Be Done?

In the days following the annual dinner, the Boys & Girls Club decided that there had to be a way for young people to come to the clubs in the evening and get a healthy balanced meal.

They considered asking grocery stores or local restaurants to donate food, but they knew they needed a more sustainable way to provide children with healthy meals five days per week.

The Boys & Girls Club decided to apply for grant dollars through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which reimburses afterschool programs that serve meals to children ages 18 and under during the school year.  The meals can be served at any time during the afterschool program, either at a traditional dinner time or immediately when the students arrive after school.

With the assistance of the Maryland Out-of-School Time Network, a statewide network composed of community members and organizations that support high-quality afterschool programs, the Boys & Girls Club was able to equip local clubs with the proper equipment such as refrigerators and warmers and work through the grant application process.

Since the meal program started, Willis reports that children who receive meals at the clubs are more likely to go to school the next day and more likely to focus in class.  “It’s amazing what a solid supper will provide for a kid,” Willis said.

City Leaders Can Scale Up Local Efforts

With the expansion of the Afterschool Meal Program to all 50 states, mayors and other city officials across the country are now in a unique position to help public and nonprofit afterschool providers take advantage of federal reimbursement for meal programs so that fewer children in the community go hungry.  Cities can serve as sponsors of the Afterschool Meal Program on behalf of multiple afterschool providers and draw on these resources to strengthen local afterschool systems.

NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families is working in partnership with the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) on a project funded by the ConAgra Foods Foundation to help cities reduce child hunger by expanding access to healthy summer and out-of-school time meals.  NLC and FRAC are also working together on the Combating Child Hunger through Afterschool Meal Programs (CHAMP) initiative supported by the Walmart Foundation to help city leaders increase participation in the federal Afterschool Meal Program. 

Details: To learn more, contact Imani Hope at (202) 626-3180 or ihope@nlc.org.