When classes let out at the Martin Luther King Jr. Complex in Atlantic City, almost half of the students don’t go home. About 300 remain after school for the district’s academic after-school program or clubs.

Before they leave, they also get dinner because, well, they’re hungry, and school officials worry that many do not get a healthy meal at home.

On a recent day staff served up platters of roasted chicken, stuffing, broccoli, pineapple chunks and milk. The younger students in grades K-2 ate first, and with a little prompting from teachers, even attempted the broccoli.

“The chicken is good,” said Samira Small, 5, as she devoured both her chicken and broccoli.

In his January State of the State address, Gov. Chris Christie called for a longer school day. Atlantic City Superintendent Donna Haye said her district is already providing it, and it includes three meals — breakfast, lunch and now, dinner.

The free dinner program, expanded as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, is subsidized by the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture’s At-Risk Afterschool Meal Program. The program is open to any nonprofit organization or school district with at least 50 percent of students eligible for the federal free or reduced-fee lunch program. The sponsor gets a subsidy of about $2.85 per dinner, according to USDA data. Participating students pay nothing.

Statewide only four school districts offer a dinner program: Atlantic City, Wildwood, Camden and Newark. A number of nonprofit groups also participate in the program, including the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City.

Wildwood began its program last year serving about 75 meals daily to students in their 21st Century Community Learning Center after-school program. This year the daily average is between 90 and 110 meals daily to students in grades four though nine. The meals are prepared by Chartwells, the district’s food-service provider, and served around 5 p.m.

“We are always looking for ways to improve the lives and learning of our students,” said Josepha Penrose, supervisor of curriculum and instruction, who noted that well over 80 percent of the children in Wildwood are eligible for the federal free-lunch program.

Atlantic City began the program last year in four schools. This year all 12 schools participate, serving an average 2,000 students per day, almost a third of all students. The two largest programs, at the MLK and Sovereign Avenue schools, serve more than 600 students daily. Haye said they expanded the program districtwide after realizing how many students needed the extra meal.

“We just didn’t realize how hungry the kids are,” said Haye, who said participation in the academic after-school program increased 40 percent when dinner was added.

Haye said Atlantic City was reimbursed $68,000 in October and $50,000 in November, which had fewer school days. The extra funds have helped reduce a food-service deficit. The district also uses federal Title I funds for disadvantaged children to run the academic program.

Diane Genco, executive director of the New Jersey School Age Care Coalition, a network for after-school programs, said they have been trying to get more school districts or other sponsors for the dinner program, but the application process and paperwork are so cumbersome it discourages groups from applying to the state Department of Agriculture.

The NJSACC would like the state to allow districts to use their school-lunch program software to run the dinner program, rather than require a separate paper application. Genco said it’s also hard to find sponsors who can pay the upfront costs until the reimbursements start coming in. She said if school districts sponsored the program, other nonprofits in the district could also participate.

“We are trying to get the word out,” she said. “There are many districts that could do this and get federal reimbursement. It’s very frustrating.”

Mekos Denson, executive director of the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club, said that last year they did get hot meals through the Atlantic City School District, but the logistics and manpower required proved too difficult. This year they do a packaged cold meal that typically includes a sandwich, fruit, side dish and milk. They serve about 300 meals a day at both sites in the city. He said they started the program because the children were hungry.

“Some of them are here from 3 to 9 p.m.” he said. “We wanted to have a meal for them.”

Haye and Penrose agreed that the application process was extensive, but the results have been worth it both in feeding students, and encouraging them to stay for the longer school day.

MLK School fourth-grade teacher Audrey Polites said while the program is open to all students, she contacted the parents of struggling students she thought would particularly benefit from the extra time. She said she makes up separate lessons for after school, which link to what students are studying in class, but are not just a review.

“I love these kids, and I’d be here late anyway,” Polites said. “They really want to learn and they make it fun to teach.”

MLK School Principal Jodi Burroughs said she noticed last year that the classes in which the most students attended after school had the most improvement on their state test scores. This year she has begun more detailed tracking of participating students.

Teresa Smith, food-service manager for Sodexo, the school district’s meal provider, said dinner meets the same federal nutrition requirements as the lunches and menus are aligned so students won’t get the same thing for lunch and dinner in the same week.

Serving three meals a day does keep staff busy, with breakfast starting at 6 a.m., then lunch and the last dinner service at 4 p.m. A separate dinner staff works from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and nine of the 12 schools have kitchens so the food can be batch-cooked to stay hot and fresh.

Students at both MLK and Sovereign Avenue said they like to stay after school, especially if they would go home to an empty house because parents are working. Some said they will still get dinner at home, but maybe not until 7 p.m.

“It’s more valuable to be here learning something,”: said Elijah McNair, 10, a student at MLK.

“I come to learn and eat,” said Kevin Palomo, 12, a sixth-grader at Sovereign Avenue School.

Burroughs said educators in high-poverty districts can’t just focus on academic subjects. They have to understand all the issues that might make it difficult for their students to learn, and hunger is one of them.

“This is really taking care of the whole child,” she said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241