Feed your brain: Homework Diner program offers families dinner, academic support

MAKING THE GRADE: Kathryn Medford, left, works with Tristan Cox at a recent Homework Diner at Enka Middle School. Tristan began attending the weekly dinners with his grandmother, Portia Simpson, in order to improve his grades.
MAKING THE GRADE: Kathryn Medford, left, works with Tristan Cox at a recent Homework Diner at Enka Middle School. Tristan began attending the weekly dinners with his grandmother, Portia Simpson, in order to improve his grades. Photo by Jack Sorokin

Homework isn’t something students or their parents necessarily look forward to tackling in those precious after-school hours of freedom — especially when there’s also dinner to worry about. But the new Homework Diner initiative spearheaded by the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County offers help with schoolwork while feeding families and the community in multiple ways.

Rolled out as a pilot project at Enka Middle School in the fall, the program is about to finish out the school year with tutoring sessions and free, hot dinners being hosted weekly in the cafeterias at Enka, Erwin and Asheville middle schools. Plans are also in the works to extend the effort to Owen Middle School next school year. Although middle schools are employed as the host sites, Homework Diner sessions are open to students and families from all grade levels in the Asheville and Buncombe County school districts.

But the program is a collaboration that goes beyond the United Way and school district leadership. The Green Opportunities catering team, which is staffed with graduates from the organization’s Kitchen Ready culinary training program, comes in each week to prepare healthy, high-quality meals for attendees. And for the tutoring component, teachers from schools within each host district are paid to be there to offer students one-on-one help with tricky homework assignments and subjects that have stumped them in the classroom.

Inspiration

The concept, which originated in 2012 at a school in Albuquerque, N.M., made its way to the Asheville area after Laura Elliot, local United Way Middle School Success director, heard about it during a national meeting of the leadership network Coalition for Community in Schools. Intrigued, she brought the idea back with her to the Asheville Buncombe Middle Grades Network.

The local United Way followed up on her tip last spring by sponsoring a group of representatives from Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools and the UWABC to attend the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum in Albuquerque. There they were able to witness the Homework Diner program operating in three schools in the area. “Our team came back really excited,” says Elliot.

Although Homework Diner is a fledgling effort in Western North Carolina, the response has already been extremely positive. Elisabeth Bocklet, United Way director of marketing and communications, says that although it can be challenging for many families to attend, participation has been strong. “The ideal situation is that the whole family is there, and that can be a struggle [for them],” says Bocklet. “But we’ve had upward of 100-150 family members on some nights.”

Doing the work

The sessions run from 5:30-7 p.m. Mondays at Erwin Middle School and Tuesdays at Enka and Asheville middle schools. After eating, students, and sometimes parents or grandparents as well, can sit down with teachers and figure things out together. This group dynamic can be empowering for both the kids and the adults.

“I met a great-grandfather who has custody of six kids,” Bocklet recalls. “He’s sitting there like, ‘I need the help; I don’t know this stuff.’ So they’re able to learn a little bit about how to approach helping their own child.”

Portia Simpson began attending the Homework Diner sessions at Enka Middle School several weeks ago with her 14-year-old grandson, Tristan Cox. Tristan’s grades had been declining, and Simpson was looking for answers, so Tristan suggested they give the program a try.

“The teachers are so good with them,” Simpson says. “They come around and talk to the students one-on-one, and they can look at their laptops and see where they’re behind on everything.”

Within two weeks, says Simpson, Tristan was able to pull his grades up from Ds to Bs. “He learned the importance of following through with stuff and how much that brings his grades up,” she says. “So every week, even if he thinks he’s not behind, we’ve been going, and every time we go, something good comes out of it.”

Asheville Middle School math teacher Joanne Robert, who has tutored with the program since it began, agrees that she’s seen Homework Diner make a huge difference for students in her classes who are struggling. “One of the things is that you get one-on-one time,” she says. “And then [the students] can see how just by persevering on a problem, it’s not that big a deal.”

Studying in a different atmosphere can be helpful, too. “You know, it’s after a full dinner, [some kids] are afternoon kids, not morning kids, so it works out better for them. … I’ve seen a real big change. It’s been real good for them.”

Students can also earn academic and attendance bonus points for participating in a Homework Diner. The extra credit is handled individually by schools and teachers.

Time to eat

Another draw for families, of course, is the bonus of getting a free, healthy meal for the whole family — that’s one night a week parents don’t have to worry about figuring out what to make for dinner. “The families eat on real plates with real silverware — it’s not this disposable feeling,” says Bocklet. And she notes that at each of the participating schools, the percentage of students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches is well over 50 percent, so having that one night of meal support available can be a huge help for some families.

The food the Green Opportunities caterers provide is carefully planned. Kitchen Ready executive chef instructor Gene Ettison, whose daughter attends Erwin Middle School, says the goal is to offer fresh, nutritious fare. “We always try to provide a fresh garden salad and a nice, healthy dessert. They’re always structured around the guidelines set forth by the school system already.”

Simpson, who has to be careful with her diet because of health issues, says the meals are something she looks forward to. “They use all locally grown stuff, and it’s fresh, so it’s a different twist on the usual meals the schools have to provide,” she says. “It’s not processed foods, so that makes it really nice.”

FULL PLATE: Providing delicious, healthy fare at each Homework Diner is the goal for GO Kitchen Ready chef instructor Gene Ettison, center. Also pictured are Guy Stivender, left, and Gary McDaniel, right. Photo by Jack Sorokin
FULL PLATE: Providing delicious, healthy fare at each Homework Diner is the goal for GO Kitchen Ready chef instructor Gene Ettison, center. Also pictured are Guy Stivender, left, and Gary McDaniel, right. Photo by Jack Sorokin

Additionally, Ettison says, the events offer members of his team, some of whom have overcome challenges such as incarceration and drug addiction, a chance to practice life skills and gain relevant professional experience in menu planning, cost efficiency and more.

“Also, they now have a chance to come back and make a living wage,” he says. “It has such an impact. … Here we are dropping a seed with our youth, and as they progress, they’ll just pay it forward to other people. It has such a ripple effect in the community, and it’s awesome.”

Building connections

Elliot points out other ways the effects of the initiative can reach far beyond providing nutrition and supporting academic success. One benefit she witnessed in action on her trip to Albuquerque, she says, was “the relationship- and trust-building, the community-building between schools and parents.”

“It’s quality time for parents to talk to their kids about the work they’re doing because a lot of parents don’t see what their kids are doing in class,” says Robert. “I also see parents and kids bonding. There are no phones out. People are talking to each other. And because there are transportation issues, for parents to come with their kids, it’s a commitment on their part as well. That’s a good model for kids to see.”

Another bonus is that the weekly events also offer space for connection between families and community resources. “It’s a great outreach opportunity for our nonprofit, social and health service and higher-education partners to reach families in a safe, friendly, welcoming environment — to build relationships in a different way, where they’re sitting around a table and sharing a meal with someone and offering resources,” Elliot says. Organizations such as Pisgah Legal Services and OnTrack Financial Education and Counseling have attended past Homework Diner sessions to offer information and services to families, and there are plans to include more in the future.

Members of the community are also encouraged to be a part of the effort — volunteers are crucial to making the events happen. Hands On Buncombe County handles recruitment of the vast number of volunteers who are needed each week at all three schools to serve food, clean up, help teachers with tutoring and register families. “It’s a nice, tangible thing for volunteers,” says Bocklet.

Robert looks forward to seeing the program grow in order to expand these connections. “It takes care of a lot of things,” she says. “I hope that next year it’s bigger, and we have more students and parents than ever. I think they’ll see the long-term benefit of it.”

The last Homework Diner events for this school year are Monday and Tuesday, May 8 and 9. For more information about the Homework Diner program, visit unitedwayabc.org/homework-diners. For details on volunteering, visit handsonasheville.org.

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About Gina Smith
Gina Smith is the Mountain Xpress Food section editor and writer. She can be reached at gsmith@mountainx.com.

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