It was dinnertime.
At 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 200 students clamored into the cafeteria at Union House Elementary in south Sacramento, forming a line in front of a mound of plastic-encased meals of sandwiches, pears and salads.
For years, schools have provided breakfast and lunch to low-income students, and now many are adding dinner to the menu including Union House, an elementary school near Mack Road and Franklin Boulevard in the Elk Grove Unified School District.
The late-afternoon meals come courtesy of the federal government's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in December 2010. The law provides federal funding for schools to serve dinner as part of their after-school program if at least half the students at the school qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.
In California, 228 schools are participating in the new program, according to the state Department of Education.
"All of our agencies that are participating love it," said Laurie Pennings, the department's manager of the Child and Adult Care Food Program. "The kids are thrilled to have a dinner when they get out of school."
Many parents, school administrators and advocates for the poor support the dinner program. But some conservatives, including radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, have questioned whether schools need to be providing three meals a day.
"Why go home?" Limbaugh asked on his program in November. "Just raise them all 24/7 at the school."
At Union House, 86 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Jack Ferreira, the school's academic program coordinator, said about 200 kids are involved in the after-school program. Because the school meets federal criteria, all children in the after-school program are served dinner, whether or not they qualify as low-income.
Looking around the cafeteria this week, Ferreira said the parents of many students in the after-school program had approached him to ask for help getting food, whether a ride to a food bank or referral to a program. He estimated that without the dinner option, at least 30 percent of the kids would be hungry at night.
One benefit of the new program, according to supporters, is that it has drawn more students into after-school programs, which typically include tutoring and enrichment courses. Ferreira has added students to the Union House program so they can have the extra meal, he said.
Teacher Carmelita Gauthier said the late-afternoon meal is important to curb the hunger of students who are in the after-school program from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. "It also introduces them to healthy choices fruits and vegetables," she said.
Yolanda Contreras has three children in the after-school program. "As a single parent it is hard," Contreras said. "Now, I know they have been fed and educated."
Contreras said her kids are usually hungry again by the time they get home. She feeds them dinner, but she "notches it down."
On Tuesday, Jordon Alexander Reeves was finishing up a turkey-ham sandwich just before 5 p.m. "It's pretty good," said the 9-year-old. "It's kind of like a snack."
Aurelia Hankins, 8, said she likes the "healthy stuff to eat."
Both Aurelia and Jordon said they eat dinner again with their families when they go home.
Elk Grove Unified serves dinner to about 3,200 students at 22 school sites every day, said Michelle Drake, the district's director of Food and Nutrition Services. The pre-made meals typically consist of a sandwich or wrap, fruit, a vegetable and milk.
Beginning next month, Sacramento City Unified will serve similar dinners from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 24 schools, said Gabe Ross, district spokesman. The pilot program will continue through the school year. Ross said it eventually may be expanded to more than 50 schools.
"For many of our families these are the best meals or only meals they get," he said.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia had dinner programs for years before the model was expanded nationwide in January. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the dinner program at $641 million from 2011 to 2020.