From Karrie Denniston’s perspective, child malnutrition is a more complex matter than simply addressing whether there’s food available.
“There are a lot of studies being done about kids being home alone after school. They’re going to come home and snack on whatever’s easiest. It’s not necessarily the absence of food that indicates hunger, but also the types of food,” Denniston said, adding that many families cannot afford such staples as milk and fresh fruit.
These issues are addressed by Kids Cafe, a national program through which children receive free nutritious meals and nutritional education. The initiative operates locally through Catholic Charities’ Food Bank of the Southern Tier, which cosponsors seven Kids Cafe sites. Denniston — who works closely with Kids Cafe in her role as the food bank’s first-year youth-programs coordinator — noted that area Kids Cafes served more than 65,000 meals last year.
Public need has been evident at the two newest Kids Cafe outlets: Elmira’s Southside Community Center, which began the program in April 2005; and at The Phoenix in Waverly in October 2004. Denniston said Southside had previously served just snacks but “when they came on as Kids Cafe with full meals, their numbers went through the roof.” She added that the Waverly site, which operates in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension, went from 132 to 400 meals per month within just a few months.
The remaining area Kids Cafe locales are Woodlawn Youth Center in Elmira; Salvation Army of Corning; Corning Area Youth Center; Owego Boys & Girls Club; and Binghamton Boys & Girls Club in the Diocese of Syracuse.
Kids Cafe provides dinners on weekdays all year long. Denniston said the program “helps in terms of school performance, because it removes anxiety” about where the next meal will come from. And during the summer, the local sites offer Kids Cafe as well as additional free meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.
Kids Cafe follows guidelines established by America’s Second Harvest, a national food-bank network to which Food Bank of the Southern Tier belongs.
“We do have the requirements to do full meals as well as nutrition education,” Dennison said, noting that such offerings as cooking classes and fruit-and-vegetable identification are crucial because “children are really at the most vulnerable stage for hunger and malnutrition, because they’re still developing. You really need to make sure the nutrition is there at that age.”
Denniston said Kids Cafes often get launched through word-of-mouth and are located at community centers in neighborhoods where the need is the greatest. Programs can vary depending on local concerns; for instance, the Waverly Kids Cafe prioritizes teens while still offering meals to children of all ages. Each Kids Cafe is staffed by a paid coordinator and several volunteers. Additional offerings may include after-school study halls, recreational activities, and arts and crafts.
Kids Cafe was begun nationally in 1989 and came to the Southern Tier five years later. Food Bank of the Southern Tier also assists Kids Cafe through grant writing and providing food at greatly reduced costs to the outreaches.
Denniston said Kids Cafe is a natural fit for Catholic Charities based on its focus of helping those in need.
“This program certainly grows out of that connection,” she said.
“You sort of have to think of the reason for Catholic Charities wanting to start a food bank from the get-go — the ministry of wanting to feed the hungry. It’s particularly strong when you think about feeding children,” added Natasha Thompson, the food bank’s director of agency and program services, who coordinated Kids Cafe prior to Denniston.
In addition to the strong foundation provided by Food Bank of the Southern Tier, Kids Cafes also rely on community support through donations of food, money and volunteer time.
Those interested in helping may contact their area Kids Cafe site, or contact Denniston at 607/796-6061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.