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Officials hope to expand free dinner program at Syracuse schools

Tom Magnarelli
Delaware Primary Principal Eli Hernandez.

Over the last month, a pilot program at the Delaware Primary and Elementary schools in Syracuse fed 200 students free dinners. Its part of a holistic approach to meet the educational and social needs of students.

The free dinners are available to students in Delaware Primary and Elementary after school programs. Delaware Primary Principal Eli Hernandez said organizing the dinners went smoothly. The after school program was extended by 30 minutes without sacrificing on the instructional components. Parents were flexible with the new schedule and students received a hot meal which included fruits and vegetables. These meals are separate from the breakfasts and lunches also available to students.     

"It was very exciting to be able to provide the students with a hot meal, three hot meals," Hernandez said. "It's good when you're able to learn in a full belly. The kids really enjoyed it. We do breakfast, lunch and now we do dinner for the students who participate in the after school program. Sometimes, these are the meals they get, end of story, for whatever the reasons are."

Delaware Primary is a bilingual English-Spanish school in a high poverty neighborhood of Syracuse. Hernandez says he and his staff cannot give students a proper education while ignoring the students’ social and emotional needs.

“Can I really focus when I have something else on my mind?" Hernandez asked. "Can I really focus when I don’t know if I’m  going to have food tonight? Our job, my job here as a principal and our staff, is to make sure that we take care of those children between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when they’re here in the after school program. That means if we need to provide for you, whatever it is, we will do so. Teaching the whole child; it’s not just I’m going to give you an education and not worry about your social and emotional needs.” 

Districts participating in the dinner program have to apply for funding yearly through New York State Department of Health’s Child and Adult Care Food Program. Officials from the Syracuse City School District say they are hoping to expand the program next year.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.