Wendy Rodas spooned out steaming mashed potatoes and carrots from the black, plastic plate, saving the barbecue chicken for last.
Sometimes the 8-year-old Golden Terrace Elementary second grader eats three meals a day at school — breakfast, lunch and dinner, she said.
“It fills me up a whole bunch,” Wendy said of her meal on Monday. “I don’t get dinner at home.”
Wendy’s not alone. Many of the students at the Golden Gate school don’t get a proper dinner when they walk out of the school doors. More than 90 percent of the students at Golden Terrace are economically needy.
That’s why the nonprofit, After School Programs Kids, stepped in to provide more than 300 free dinners a day to students in eight Collier County elementary schools.
Last year, the private organization received an $2 million annual grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture to provide free dinners to students in its after school programs in Collier, Broward, Dade and Orange counties.
The grant must be applied to schools where more than 50 percent of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunch. Around 62 percent of all students in Collier schools qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Since the meal program began in December, the grant has paid for almost a quarter of a million meals across the state. In Collier County, it’s provided more than 13,500 hot meals.
Monday, about 25 students, including Wendy, crowded around a cafeteria table munching on carrots, mashed potatoes, barbecue chicken, and a biscuit. They washed the meal down with a glass of 1 percent milk. A different meal is offered five days a week throughout the school year.
Starting at 5 p.m., parents trickled into the cafeteria to pick up their children. They pay $44 per week for their children to attend the after school program.
First-grader Alex Turkelson was eating his chicken and waiting for his Dad. Alex said he likes carrots and staying after school because he “likes to eat and play.” Thirty minutes later his dad, Thomas Turkelson, walked into the cafeteria on the way back from his construction job.
“This is convenient,” Thomas Turkelson said of the meal program. “It’s nice, especially when I get off late.”
Turkelson said he and his wife can afford to cook dinner at home, but that this provides an extra meal for his growing, 7-year-old. Alex also eats a free breakfast from school.
Laura Martinez’s 6-year-old daughter, Jasmary Bracero, started eating some of her dinners at school in February. Martinez needed her daughter to stay at school while she worked at Fresh Market.
“Before she would come home starving,” Martinez said. Now, when Jasmary eats dinner at Golden Terrace, Martinez said her daughter comes home with more energy.
Alan Wolnek, the founder of After School Programs, said the meals program is aimed for children who get too little to eat at home. Too many children go home hungry, he said.
“Many (parents) say they can’t afford healthy choices and that they have to buy unhealthy food,” Wolnek said.
With the meal program, the kids are guaranteed a nutritious dinner that meets the dietary guidelines for elementary students. Students who eat a healthy, nutritious meal perform better in school, Wolnek said.
The program offers other meals like turkey tetrazzini, a roll, broccoli, and pineapple tidbits or arroz con pollo, Cuban bread, peas and carrots and plantains.
“These kids, they clean their plates, they really do,” Wolnek said.
Monday was no different.
Within thirty minutes, the kids had emptied their plates. They said they were hungry after hours of doing homework, playing ball, and doing work on the computer.
Wolnek wants to see the meals program grow. He recently received district approval to expand the program to Immokalee, but only if the schools are interested.
The real goal of After School Programs is to get the children off the street and into a safe, after school environment, he said. Adding a meal program to that was a “no-brainer,” he said.
“This feels really good,” Wolnek said. “We’re lucky we can offer something like this.”