ST. PETERSBURG — Callie Tetzel tipped back a container of milk and drained every last drop under the watchful gaze of her mother.
Jessica Tetzel didn't eat. She comes early every day to Sexton Elementary, though, so she can sit with her daughter while the 6-year-old enjoys a hot dinner, courtesy of the Pinellas County School District.
This time, dinner was a Philly cheesesteak, salad, pineapple and milk.
"I'm like, 'You eat better than I do,' " Tetzel joked.
Under a new program announced in July, the school district has started serving free hot dinners to students at low-income schools. Students in after-school programs who used to get a snack — graham crackers and some juice — can now get a full meal, too. Their parents can join them, if they pay for their own meal.
Suzette Burns, principal of Sexton Elementary, said some parents work two or three jobs, making it tough to get dinner on the table at an early hour. Some students would eat lunch at 11 a.m. and not get another meal until 7 p.m. or later. Others didn't get dinner at all.
The school already offered breakfast and lunch.
"I think it's great that we can offer one more meal with healthy food," she said.
Sexton was the first school in Pinellas to get the program, which is being phased in throughout this school year. Eighteen elementary and middle schools are serving dinner now — about 2,000 to 3,000 hot meals a day — with 15 more schools slated to start by December. By spring break, the number could be 60 to 65, said Lynn Geist, assistant director of food services.
To qualify for the program, schools must have at least 50 percent of students on subsidized lunch. The federal government reimburses Pinellas for the cost of the dinner program.
Students who participate receive hot sandwiches, juice or fruit, a vegetable and milk. Dinner typically is served between 5 and 5:30 p.m., Geist said.
Some families at Sexton opted out of the program, saying they preferred to eat dinner as a family. Other children were picked up before dinner was served. Of 80 students at the after-school program last week, about 57 were served dinner on Tuesday.
The hot meals have been popular with students.
Nathaniel Apollo Jacob, 6, took the cheese off his Philly cheesesteak Tuesday, adding it and a helping of ketchup to his salad. He eats all three meals at school, he said.
Donte Whiting, 10, said "everything is good except for the salad."
Tetzel said the dinners have been nice for her family. She hasn't been able to get dinner made until 6:30 or 7 p.m. each day, which is long after her daughter's 11 a.m. lunch time.
"It's just nice because she's not starving," she said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.