The bell at 2:52 p.m. dismisses students at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Center for the Fine Arts. Moments later, elementary school children with backpacks bigger than their bodies come bounding into the cafeteria.
It’s supper time for students in the after-school program.
What’s on the menu today? Grilled chicken sandwiches, lettuce and pickle cups, apple sauce and their choice of milk. All for free.
The after-school supper and snack program in Alachua County began in 2014 at C. W. Norton Elementary and has since expanded to 33 more locations at elementary, middle and high schools – with three added in the past month, said Caron Rowe, spokeswoman for Alachua County Food and Nutrition Services.
A.L. Mebane Middle School, Oak View Middle School and Reichert House Youth Academy are the three new locations.
Last school year, 437,000 suppers were served in Alachua County, Rowe said.
The program is funded through the Child and Adult Care Food Program and does not come out of Alachua County taxpayers’ pockets. The Child and Adult Care Food Program is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While most of the 34 locations are Alachua County public schools, two Boys and Girls Clubs and Reichert House, an after-school youth program, are on the list.
To qualify for the program, the intended location must be educational in nature, Rowe said.
Many schools must stagger lunch times beginning early in the morning to accommodate all the students, Rowe said.
“So, there could be a student at a school who ate lunch at 10 in the morning, and they’re at school until 5:30,” Rowe said. “That’s a long time for them to go without any kind of nourishment.”
While the district keeps a roster of the students who want to participate in the free supper program to allot for the correct amount of meals, it does not record the specific demographics of the students it serves, Rowe said. In order to qualify for the program in the first place, 50% of the students must be on free or reduced lunch.
The district knows there are some students who solely rely on the program for all of their meals, Rowe said.
“We’ve seen that students who are receiving good nutrition definitely do function better in the classroom. They’re less fidgety and more apt to pay attention,” Rowe said.
Kamilah Cobb, a 6-year-old first grade student at Rawlings, eats supper every school day through the Rawlings after-school program Kids Count. She said she is allergic to cheese and peanut butter, but her favorite supper is broccoli with cheese on it.
“I can eat cooked cheese!” she clarified.
Managing allergies and dietary restrictions is one of Kelly Thomas’ responsibilities as the food service manager at Rawlings.
In addition to managing the Rawlings supper program for about 40 students, Thomas also sends 80 meals to Reichert House.
Thomas, who is in her third year working at Rawlings, is a familiar presence to the students as she makes morning announcements and visits the classes to bring snacks of fruits and vegetables like pears, asparagus and zucchini noodles.
“I want this to be a happy place for them,” Thomas said, and one where they want to be.
Thomas said the most popular meals for her students are nachos and turkey pot roast.
“It’s comfort food for them,” Thomas said.
The menu is made by the county office in conjunction with a chef and dietitian. Thomas said Rawlings plans three weeks out and gets the food delivered the week before.
She said most of the food is prepared in the kitchen and many fruits and vegetables come from the farm-to-school program.
As the clock struck 3 p.m., the students scurried in to get their meals. Thomas stood at the door and watched the students file by.
“Make sure we get a fruit or vegetable, guys,” she said to the passing students.
Twenty minutes later the students leave the cafeteria, and Thomas began to think about the next day’s meals.
“They know when they come in here, they are treated with respect,” Thomas said. “It’s a good environment, and they have lots of (meal) choices.”