TAMPA — The role of the school lunch program is expanding again.
After adding universal free breakfast a decade ago, the Hillsborough County School District is about to offer free dinner at four high-poverty schools.
The program, approved at Tuesday's School Board meeting, is part of a national effort that is supported by antihunger organizations but derided by some conservative leaders. "Why even send the kids home?" radio host Rush Limbaugh asked on his show.
But supporters embrace any steps the school system can take to combat hunger and help children stay on task.
"How can you argue against a child being hungry and having the opportunity for them to be fed?" said School Board member Doretha Edgecomb. "You've got to have some humanity."
Hunger can affect any child, she said, not just one who has grown up in poverty. "There could be an illness in the family. There could be a divorce. There are numerous things that can happen in a child's life."
The bottom line, said Ginain Grayes, marketing specialist for the district's student nutrition program, is that "if children are hungry, guess what? They're not learning in the classroom."
Not only that, but according to the United States Department of Agriculture, which funds the program, regular meals and snacks can encourage children and teenagers to spend their after-school hours in constructive, safe activities.
The four elementary schools chosen in Hillsborough all have populations that are more than 95 percent low income, measured by their participation in the free lunch program: Just, Sulphur Springs, Potter, and B.T. Washington.
The cutoff for the program is a 50 percent poverty rate.
At all four schools, large numbers of children remain on campus throughout the afternoon for tutoring, academic enrichment and cultural programs.
"I think it's a great idea," said Carolyn Hill, principal of Just Elementary School, which draws almost entirely from public housing families.
The nation's after-school nutrition program originated in 2000 and got a major boost in 2010 with passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
As with Hillsborough's free breakfast program, it requires no application process. To qualify, a student simply needs to be enrolled in both the school and an after-school program.
The dinner program could begin as early as April, Grayes said. If it is successful in the first year, the district will consider expanding it to other high-poverty schools.
"For a lot of these children, the meals they receive at school are the only meals they receive," Grayes said. "It's hard to fathom, but that's just the reality of things."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356.