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Pinellas to expand outreach to needy families with school dinners

USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon talks to Jeremiah Oriol, 5, and Ava Ortiz, 6, at a school in Pinellas Park on Wednesday.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon talks to Jeremiah Oriol, 5, and Ava Ortiz, 6, at a school in Pinellas Park on Wednesday.

A few graham crackers and a bit of juice isn't very filling.

But for some kids in Pinellas County after-school care, it's the only food they'll have until breakfast the next day.

A new initiative announced Wednesday by Pinellas County Schools is trying to change that. The district is joining with YMCA after-school programs to give thousands of kids a free hot dinner at school each evening.

"It was a natural thing," said Lynn Geist, assistant director of the school district's Food Service department. "We have the kitchens, we have the staff, we have the know-how, and the kids are right there."

Beginning in August, the district will begin phasing in its dinner program at a handful of Pinellas County schools with hopes of expanding to all qualifying schools by late December.

Those schools have YMCA after-school programs and a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. That's about 40 of the 45 schools with YMCA programs. The initiative will expand in the spring to many after-school programs run by R'Club.

Superintendent Mike Grego said the program is another commitment to helping working parents and fulfilling kids' basic needs. "I see the smiles on kids' faces because they know they have the consistency of a good meal," he said.

And, he said, the district will invite parents to come in and join their kids for dinner.

In other districts with dinner programs, parents can pay for a meal to eat with their children, or just join them while they eat. Pinellas has yet to nail down all the details, Grego said.

"It's something that we might not have all the answers to right now, but we'll try exploring and see how it works."

The school district already works to feed kids in need, offering free breakfast and lunch during the summer at multiple locations. During the school year, breakfast is free for all students. And the district plans to expand its free lunch program this year, offering the meals to all students at some low-income schools, not just the kids who qualify.

Of the 103,000 students in Pinellas public schools, 55.5 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In 2007, that number was 35 percent.

"The economy really hit us hard," Geist said. "Folks need help with some of the basics, and that's why we're here. We're one of those safety nets."

She said some opposition to the plan is to be expected.

"There's always a small group of people that says the government should not be doing this, that it's a parent's responsibility," she said. "A lot of hardworking people lost their jobs, and now some of them need our help. They won't need it forever, but this is one way we can help."

Production of the school dinners will be centralized in large school kitchens. Recently purchased food trucks will get meals, both hot and cold, to dinner sites.

The dinner program announcement came during a visit by Kevin Concannon, under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who toured district food operations Wednesday.

Pinellas officials said they didn't know how much the program will cost the USDA, which is funding it. But it will come at no cost to the district.

Geist said the district will be serving about 4,000 dinners a day by the end of the fall semester. The USDA provides a reimbursement of $3.14 per meal, and county meal costs for lunch are usually slightly less than $2. With other costs added in, the district breaks even, Geist said.

Discussion about the dinners began when the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services took over responsibility for school food programs, Geist said. She said the district's efforts to get creative — such as making fruit smoothies and allowing unlimited fruits and vegetables for kids — caught the state's attention.

The Afterschool Nutrition Program, which is part of the Child Care Food Program, isn't limited to Pinellas County, but will run statewide, according to Erica Chicola, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, which helps administer the program.

Claire McNeill can be reached at cmcneill@tampabay.com. Twitter: @clairemcneill.

Pinellas to expand outreach to needy families with school dinners 07/17/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 11:55pm]

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