Afterschool Meal Quality Matters by Mehreen Ismail, MPH Nutrition Candidate
Shivering in a massive freezer room, I squinted in the dim light while trying to find two magic words: whole grain. These words were nowhere to be found on the box of frozen, breaded chicken patties I was examining. Even so, I knew that box and many more had to be delivered to the two afterschool meal sites I coordinated. I also knew my colleagues would have none of the same reservations I had about putting those processed chicken patties on the menu. After all, the children who would eat that chicken were at least being fed, right?
Moments like these were not uncommon for me when I worked at a multi-county food bank in 2012. My former employer was able to serve those chicken patties and many other packaged, processed foods through reimbursement from the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Primarily supporting child and adult daycare centers, CACFP is a federal nutrition program that also assists school districts and non-profit organizations that sponsor afterschool meal service. Meals must adhere to the CACFP meal pattern, which is not as tuned into nutritional quality as the redesigned National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meal pattern. Afterschool meals are distinctly targeted toward youth living in low-income communities where they may be “at risk” for nutritional deficiencies.
Although it is certainly important that children are being fed in cases where being fed dinner is not guaranteed, afterschool hunger is only a small part of what CACFP must tackle. Meal quality and appeal matter. One organization emphasizing this issue within the afterschool space is California Food Policy Advocates (CFPA). For five months, I had the privilege of working with CFPA to uncover what quality and appeal mean for CACFP afterschool meals and for the policies guiding them in California.
With the largest number of afterschool program sites in the country, California is well positioned to be a leader in afterschool meal quality and appeal. Each month during the school year California afterschool programs serve millions of meals through CACFP. I was able to speak with a few of the sponsors contributing to this impressive meal count and learn about how their afterschool meal programs operate. Across the board, these sponsors recognize that what and how they serve their participants is important. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole foods, and ethnically diverse items are regular features on their menus. Children, parents, and staff are regularly asked for their feedback on the program. On a school district site visit, I saw some of these best practices in action. Looking at one of their menus, I was heartened to see chicken as an entrée, this time of the oven roasted and made from scratch variety.
As the Child Nutrition Reauthorization approaches in 2015, the CACFP meal pattern may be revised, encouraging more sponsors to serve high quality, appealing food. To stay updated on this process and to see how quality and appeal are incorporated, check out CFPA’s advocacy work at cfpa.net.