By KEVIN BRADY
Starting this fall, thousands of additional Florida children will eat a healthy meal after school, thanks to a lobbying campaign supported by childhood hunger advocates.
Florida Impact, a nonprofit group dedicated to reducing hunger and poverty in the Sunshine State, spearheaded the effort.
An amendment to the Legislature’s Early Learning Bill, signed into law recently by Gov. Rick Scott, clears the last administrative hurdle for the federal Afterschool Meal Program in Florida. The amendment, championed by Florida Impact, will allow hundreds of afterschool programs in the state, including many run by churches, access to federal funding to buy nutritious dinners for children.
Without the amendment, afterschool programs had to be licensed and meet certain criteria to be eligible for the federal subsidy.
“That was an exclusion that not many church afterschool programs were able to meet,” said Sandi Vaughn, of the United Methodist Church Association of Preschools. Now that the amendment has passed, she said, “We can feed a lot more hungry children. Thousands of children will benefit.”
Florida ranks 12th in the nation in food hardship, according to Florida Impact. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that 29.2 percent of American families with children are struggling with hunger.
A nutritious afterschool meal is not just about hunger, Vaughn said.
“If children are hungry, they cannot learn. As adults, we know you can’t function when you get hungry. For some of these children, their evening meal is whatever is on the dollar menu at McDonald’s, so at least with this program they are getting healthy food.”
The county provides more than 8,000 meals when school is out through the Summer Food Service Program.
“There’s no doubt there are a lot of kids who need it,” said Brandon’s Amy Carrier, who oversees the program. “And from what I have seen from the state, there are a lot fewer children in the summer food program than there are kids getting free and reduced meals at schools, so there are even more kids that need it.”
With a menu heavy on vegetables, fruit, grains and protein, the summer food program has the same goal as the afterschool food program: making sure children get a healthy meal at least once a day.
“My guess is the meals are better than many of the children are getting at home,” Carrier said.
Congress expanded the federal Afterschool Meal Program in December 2010 to address hunger and under-nutrition among children who don’t receive a balanced meal except at school. The program reimburses schools and nonprofits $3.08 for each nutritious supper provided in afterschool programs in low-income neighborhoods, allowing up to 15 percent to be used for administrative costs.
However, bureaucratic and administrative hurdles delayed the program in Florida. The amendment crafted by Florida Impact erased the last of those hurdles. It was inserted into the Early Learning Bill that had strong bipartisan support in Tallahassee.
“It was an agonizing process,” said Dr. Debra Susie, Florida Impact’s executive director.
“You pass a law, but that is not the end of it. The administrative agency has to write up a set of rules to implement the law.”
Prior to the amendment, afterschool programs were required to secure a full childcare license, even though this is not required by the federal program, she said.
The amendment was the last major battle in a two-year campaign to implement the Afterschool Meal Program in Florida. Previously, Florida Impact helped eliminate a requirement that some nonprofit afterschool programs, otherwise eligible for the federal Afterschool Meal Program, would need a food and safety inspection. Adding 10 words to the Department of Health reorganization bill, which passed in the state Legislature in March, eliminated this hurdle.
Some afterschool programs also cited dual paperwork as a deterrent to signing up. Florida Impact organized a coalition of the state’s health and agriculture departments, along with Broward County Schools, the nation’s sixth largest school district, to help streamline that process.
“We decided that rather than go with state legislation, which is a big deal, we would try to work this first through the rule promulgation process with no legislators, just state administrators,” Susie said.
However, after waiting for two years for Florida to clear all the barriers to implementing the Afterschool Meal Program, Florida Impact decided to go directly to the Legislature to erase the final barrier: requiring a full childcare license.
“Tucking away just a few words in the Early Learning Bill took care of the problem,” Susie said.
An estimate of how many children will benefit from greater access to the Afterschool Meal Program can be determined by the number currently using the state’s afterschool snack program, with many more nonprofits expected to jump on board in the coming year, Susie said.
“Just using the 29,265 children attending those sites currently, there is the potential of serving 5.2 million suppers over 180 days of the school year, which translates into approximately $16 million for the state’s nonprofits operating afterschool programs in the low-income communities of Florida.”