Before her Boys & Girls Club started serving supper, 10-year-old Paige Pierre-Louis often would go home from school to eat only a snack the rest of the night. Her single mother often was unable to provide more.
On a recent weekday, Paige ate beef ravioli, green peas, canned pears and milk before her mom, a school worker, picked her up from an afternoon of studying and playing at the Fort Lauderdale center.
"I'm a track runner, and I need a healthy supper," said the tall, lean Pierre-Louis. "When they give us a meal, it has vegetables and fruit, and that helps me get stronger."
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County will be honored this week as the first group in Florida to offer suppers in a new after-school program for low-income children. It signed up after a bipartisan group in Congress voted in 2010 to offer the meals to millions of American kids lacking proper nutrition.
The Broward nonprofit helps at least 12,000 children per year — more than half from households with income below the poverty line and about two-thirds led by a single parent. About seven in 10 of its members qualify for free or reduced-rate lunch at school because of their low-income status.
At its clubs, where children do homework, learn to use computers, play basketball, paint and enjoy other activities, members long received an afternoon snack. But they often went home to eat little more, making it harder for them to concentrate at school the next day, said Brian Quail, chief executive for the Broward clubs.
The Florida Partnership to End Childhood Hunger last year honored the Broward group as a trailblazer for offering suppers since 2011. On Thursday, the chief of the national Boys & Girls Clubs will recognize the group for best Florida program for the suppers, funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For grandmother Tina Russo, the Boys & Girls Club and its supper program are a godsend.
The 53-year-old is raising three of her daughter's children — ages 16, 11 and 7 and also caring for own infirm father. For now, she's out of work. A restaurant-bar that she bought suffered a fire and awaits permits to rebuild and reopen, Russo said. She likes that the club helps the children with school work.
"It gives you peace of mind that they are in a safe place and get supper," said Russo. "And on Saturdays, they send each one home with food, even it's a can of sausages, apple sauce and cereal."
Weekend snack-packs are made possible with help from the Jim Moran and Winn-Dixie foundations and nonprofit food bank Feeding South Florida. Across the tri-county area, one in four children are either going hungry or lacking components for a healthy meal, according to Feeding America.
Children at the Broward clubs see other benefits from snacks and supper, too.
Nine-year-old Sabrianna McConn said she now has more time with her mom, who need not worry about feeding her and her brother at night.
"We play board games," said McConn. "And sometimes we go to the park, when it's not dark outside."
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Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County
Started: 1965, to help at-risk youth meet their potential, offering after school and other programs.
Locations: 12 chartered clubs in Broward, providing sports, computers and other activities, plus snacks and meals.
Outreach: Helped nearly 13,000 children and served 702,000 snacks and meals in budget year 2013.
Budget: About $10 million per year. Membership per child is $15 per year, but services for each member cost roughly $1,220 per year. Funding comes from foundations, individuals, government and others.
Source: Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County