New London - Dinner is now on the menu at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.
The 600 students at the city's only middle school are the only ones in the state who now can eat all three meals at school.
The state Department of Education offered the new program late last year to school districts in which more than 50 percent of the student body qualifies for free lunches. New London, where about 83 percent of the district's 3,000 students meet the income requirements, was the only district to sign up for the pilot program.
The federally funded suppers are not only offering a healthful late afternoon dinner. The informal supper setting is an opportunity for students to socialize and hone their skills at dinner conversation.
'He never gets full'
It's 3:30 p.m. and kids at Bennie Dover are filing into the cafeteria. Mats have recently been folded and put away following an after-school wrestling club, and cafeteria tables with attached chairs have been rolled out.
Supper is about to be served.
Or more precisely, the students are lining up in front of the chrome shelves in the kitchen reaching for trays of French bread pizzas, salads, fruit cups and chocolate milk. They file back to the cafeteria and sit with their friends.
Quaprice Rice, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, is sitting with his pals, Jason Shepard and twins Renel and Reneslon St. Jean. As they devour the thick slab of cheese pizza and pick at the salad, the boys talk about wrestling and XBox. Occasionally someone tells a joke.
Quaprice says the meal is really a snack for him. Later, when he gets home, he'll have another meal, maybe a can of soup, some noodles or a sandwich.
"He has two stomachs,'' Renel says. "He never gets full."
The St. Jeans say that if they weren't eating the meal at school, they most likely would be stopping at a corner store on the way home for a bag of chips and a soda to tide them over until dinner at home.
A few feet away, eighth-graders are huddled at a round table. The afternoon meal allows these honor roll students to sit with friends and talk. It's unlike lunch period, where seats are assigned and the noise level from hundreds of young teens vying for attention borders on deafening.
"This gives us a chance to meet up after school,'' says Andre Rice. "Some kids go home to an empty house. It's fun to stay here with friends."
Their conversations revolve around an Amistad enrichment program some are involved in and school gossip, like who was sent to the dean's office that day. And they talk about sports.
All the students who get supper must participate in one of about 16 after-school enrichment programs.
"We're here every day after school anyway,'' says Lillian James, an eighth-grader who is in the Amistad Club. "I think more kids are staying because of the dinners.''
"We know kids need to eat, but many parents are working all the way through,'' says Superintendent of Schools Nicholas A. Fischer. "It's not that parents don't care; they really do care. They care deeply."
But the meals, which have included lasagna and steak sandwiches with sweet potato fries, are a far better alternative to snack food, he says. Students say, so far, the teriyaki chicken and mashed potatoes have been the best.
"I think it's a great asset for the kids and the parents, and it's a wonderful community service,'' Fischer says. "Some of our students eat three meals with us."
Watching New London
Offering the city's students free supper seemed to Gail Sharry, food services director, like a natural extension of the breakfast and lunch programs.
"There was a need,'' she says. "After school we were serving them 6 ounces of juice and animal crackers. It wasn't enough. ... Once I started, it was a no-brainer to continue.''
The pilot program began in late January, with 360 meals served. The numbers for February are still be tabulated, but about 75 kids a day stayed for supper, Sharry says. Two weeks ago, the district began offering supper at the high school, too.
The school is reimbursed $2.72 for each supper served, which covers the cost of the food and the extra staff needed to prepare and serve the meals.
The state Department of Education contacted a number of school districts late last year, including those in Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, to offer the pilot program, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In December, the supper program, which was available as a pilot in only 15 states, was expanded to include all 50 states. Other eligible districts Connecticut are watching New London's program.
"New London has an exciting program. It's managed well and hopefully we will learn more to help other districts and expand,'' says Cheryl Resha, director of the state's children's nutrition program.
Ed Sweeney, director of after-school activities and the middle school's athletic director, says the program has been successful because of the collaboration among the food staff, the teachers and administrators.
"It's been positive,'' Sweeney says. "The students are all very well-spoken and well-mannered. I think they are developing a nice rapport and that reflects on us as a school.''