With as many as one in six children struggling with hunger as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many families feel financially stretched providing nutritious food for their kids to eat after school. The CACFP At-Risk Afterschool Meals Program and NSLP Afterschool Snack Program allow educational and enrichment programs to provide kids with the nutrition they need to stay full and focused after the final bell rings.
Although afterschool snacks have been available since the late 1990s, the At-Risk Afterschool Meals component of the CACFP has only been available nationwide since December 2010. As described in Celebrating Ten Years of Afterschool Meals, the number of afterschool meals served through the CACFP grew by more than 600 percent between its first year of nationwide rollout and 2019. In FY 2019, there were more than 212 million afterschool meals served. There were also nearly 240 million afterschool snacks served through CACFP and NSLP.
Despite enormous growth, there is still a big gap: for every one hundred school lunches provided to kids in need across the country, there were just 12 snacks or meals served. Program implementation varies widely from state to state in both overall reach and reliance on snacks over meals. In some states, there are just one or two afterschool suppers served for every thousand subsidized lunches, suggesting a significant opportunity to reach more kids facing hunger. Schools, community centers, and other locations that offer afterschool programming as well as sponsoring organizations that can support nutrition programs are potential partners to help fill that gap.
Schools have the facilities, equipment, staff, and skills needed to prepare and serve food. With extracurricular activities already occurring at many schools, and afterschool meal or snack is a natural fit. If at least half of the students at the school are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, or if the school is within the attendance boundary of a public school that meets the threshold, then it can serve meals and/or snacks free of charge to children and teens.
Parents, advocates and educators can expand afterschool meals and snacks at schools by:
- Contacting local school officials, such as the school nutrition director, principals, superintendent or school board members. These decision-makers can help you to understand what’s already happening, and you can educate them about the need for afterschool nutrition programs and their benefits for students and schools. This guide will help you to understand the best times during the year to approach school nutrition staff specifically.
- Reaching out to coaches and athletic directors. Although afterschool nutrition programs cannot operate for the sole benefit of competitive sports teams, USDA guidance states that athletes can participate as part of a broader afterschool program. Coaches and athletic directors are often among the strongest advocates for providing meals and snacks.
- Encouraging schools to provide snacks and/or meals at eligible schools where there are already enrichment activities occurring.
- Suggesting that schools organize tutoring, study hall, or other activities that will draw more students to stay after school and take advantage of the snack or meal.
- Encouraging schools to sponsor or provide meals to other afterschool programs in the community.
The tools below can provide additional support to schools and school districts interested in adding the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program. You can contact your CACFP state agency to learn more about the program and the application process.
Three Meals a Day: A Win-Win-Win -- The Full Guide to Starting and Improving Your Afterschool Meals Program
Numerous organizations provide educational or enrichment programs in safe trusted locations throughout the community. Common examples include the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, faith-based organizations, libraries and recreation centers. Many of them may already serve snacks or meals but not realize that they can receive funding to help offset the cost. Others may not have the capacity to prepare meals but could serve food provided by another organization or vendor.
Families often turn to faith-based organizations and places of worship when they need assistance making ends meet. These organizations can play a crucial role in connecting children with meals when they’re not in school. If the organization or place of worship offers enrichment programming, it could be a candidate to offer meals or snacks. Religious instruction is a permissible enrichment activity as long as children are not required to participate in order to receive a meal or snack.
As with school sites, afterschool programs in the community must be located within the attendance boundary of a public school where at least half of the children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals in order to provide meals and snacks free of charge to all children through the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program. Review this handout to see if serving meals through the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program "make cents" for your organization and then listen to this video and read these FAQs. These detail the next steps on getting started.
The Afterschool Alliance can help you to learn about afterschool activities and enrichment, connect with a network of afterschool program providers in your state, and identify programs in your area. The government clearinghouse youth.gov can also help you to locate programs or find resources to support them.
Some afterschool programs may not be ready or willing to take on the full responsibility of running an afterschool nutrition program. This could be due to a variety of factors, such as lack of staff capacity, experience with meal preparation, or familiarity with federal requirements. A sponsoring organization can help to alleviate many of these concerns, so connecting afterschool enrichment programs with sponsors is a great way to expand access.
- If there are no organizations currently sponsoring afterschool programs, a great place to start is a CACFP sponsor with experience supporting child care centers. Although the requirements are slightly different, it is typically easy for existing CACFP sponsors to amend their contracts with the state agency and begin working with afterschool programs.
- If there are no existing CACFP sponsors in the area with the capacity to add afterschool programs, recruiting local non-profits, government agencies or school districts to become sponsors can provide needed support. Organizations that have operated the Summer Food Service Program understand how to run a federal nutrition program and oversee sites, so they are well positioned to make this transition.
Use this handout to show how serving suppers through the CACFP Afterschool Meals Program can "make cents" for sponsoring organizations.
Strong and efficient organizations can serve more meals or support more sites; tastier meals can attract more kids to programs; effective and adequately funded programs can draw more kids to the meals and snacks; well-nourished kids can focus better on school and their extracurricular activities; and serving more meals leads to more funding to support sites and sponsors. There are often technical or financial resources available to help organizations start afterschool meals programs.
- Food Service Resources: It may be a challenge to plan menus that meet requirements while appealing to kids and containing costs. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation developed the Smart Food Planner to help tackle that challenge. The website includes sample menus for afterschool meals. For schools and sponsors that obtain meals from a vendor or caterer, the challenge is identifying and securing a capable and affordable company while complying with procurement requirements. This handout can help you to think through your needs and provides ideas for finding a vendor. And regardless of how you obtain meals, our new Optimizing Summer and Afterschool Meal Service resource can help you to think of ways to improve meal quality and reduce food waste.
- Grant Opportunities and Resources: Subscribe to the Center for Best Practices' "What's New" newsletter to learn about potential grant opportunities. To improve your odds of writing a winning proposal, check out our tips for a successful grant application.
- Providing Support: Offering small grants to help afterschool enrichment programs or sponsors to start or expand their meal program is an excellent way to increase access to afterschool nutrition programs. This sample grant application template and tips for evaluating applications will help you to implement an effective grant-giving process. This grant report template will help you to ensure that your funds are being used for their intended purpose and gather success stories.
Several resources are available to help program operators design inclusive afterschool meals programs:
- Let Your Community Shape Your Program: The discussion questions and stories presented here are meant to serve as a resource for schools and nonprofit organizations looking to more meaningfully engage kids and their families in program design and delivery. Consider soliciting input from families and those working closest to families as you continue to discuss these questions and stories with your full team.
- Conversation Starters for Designing More Inclusive School Meals Programs: These conversation starters can be used to guide conversations with school nutrition staff to a) identify barriers that students and their families may face in accessing school meals, and b) generate ideas for engaging students and families as partners in designing more equitable meals programs.
- Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program (webinar recording): This interactive workshop features school nutrition staff and community partners who work together to create inclusive school meals programs, specifically assessing and removing barriers students may face in accessing meals programs. The speakers provide insight into actionable items that school nutrition departments may implement in their own communities.
- Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program (webinar slides): Slides from the 4/7/21 workshop: Designing a More Inclusive School Meals Program
While some of these resources focus on school meals programs, many of the principles can be used for planning afterschool meals programs.