There are days when students in Houston Independent School District eat lunch at 11 a.m. Burgers, burritos, salads -- school lunches, worth eating for free, worth trading with friends if you want. And once lunch ends, the school day winds on, with classes and breaks and bells intermingling. The school day ends, and extracurricular programs pop in: sports, art, language. Programs mandated by the state, especially in areas with at-risk students.
And students get to enjoy all of this -- these afternoon classes, this final bell, these extracurricular activities -- on nothing but whatever starches and vegetables were served at lunch. Maybe a snack from the vending machine in the interim. Maybe something stowed deep in their backpack. But for many, nothing, until 6 p.m. rolls near and parents can pick up children who'd had nothing to eat for the previous half-dozen hours.
HISD, however, has attempted to implement a program that will help to stem some of this hunger. Beginning with a small pilot last October, and with the help of the 21st Century Community Learning Center and the USDA's Child and Adult Care Food Program, HISD has installed a program at 32 schools across the city that provides a free dinner to anyone -- student or not -- under the age of 18.
"That's a long time for students to go without food -- the tank is going to be empty by end of day, and you really need an evening meal to help get these kids through the school day," says Brian Giles, HISD's senior administrator of food services. "[The program] has been really well-received, primarily because kids in schools typically do have a longer school day, so those participating in tutorials and other educational programs are going to need some additional fuel."
The program began last fall and was piloted in only five schools, according to Giles. In the subsequent five months, however, it has expanded 32 schools, all of which offer after-school programs and serve a certain number of students deemed at-risk.
According to Giles, each cafeteria averages approximately 100 students per night -- over 3,000 meals per day, five days per week. And because the program, utilized by a handful of other school districts across the state, is run through a federal reimbursement program, Giles says the meals cost nothing for HISD to offer.
"If we say we served 100 meals at Port Houston [Elementary School], and if the meals met all nutritional requirements, which they do, at the end of month we submit a report," Giles says. "The Texas Department of Agriculture then will reimburse the district at a certain rate for all those meals. The only variation is associated with meals served."
While the program, which HISD says will expand to 50 schools by this fall, has seemingly been heralded by those involved, it doesn't come without issues. According to HISD spokesperson Denise Cantu, no documentation is required to access the meals served at the 32 schools.
"I went to Port Houston one day, and the program was very simple: They just show up and get served a meal," said Cantu. "They don't have to show documentation, and lots were accompanied by parents." Cantu said the parents attending were feeding younger children, but, without documentation, there seems no method for checking that the meals are heading to those intended.
Moreover, the program seems to bear some potential for abuse, with which HISD is intimately familiar. As the Press previously reported, HISD, in 2004, was caught cooking the numbers for its free-breakfast program, with meals returned unopened yet reported as consumed. That's not to say that the past and current programs are parallel -- the breakfast program in question came under fire nearly a decade ago, after all -- but their concepts remain similar.
Still, for now, the program has reported neither abuse nor issues. And, per its expansion, it seems as if it's become something of a hit among students and parents alike.
"That's the reason it's grown," Cantu says of the program's popularity. "That's the reason there's been such a great response from community and such a great turnout."