"Thankful to serve others"

Date published: 11/11/2015
Publication: Albany Times Union

New programs, strategies are now going beyond soup kitchens in region

By Steve Barnes

Raven Kalter and her three kids—13, 10 and 4—have been going out to eat five nights a week since the beginning of this month.

They all get three-course meals from fresh, healthful ingredients. And it’s free.

The Kalters are members of the South End Children’s Café, a new, private, nonprofit concept in providing food to those in need. That it is in a restaurant setting instead of a church, shelter or soup kitchen makes it part of a growing movement to address hunger with different, varied and more nuanced strategies.

The Kalter kids go to the South End Children’s Café after school to participate in programs and study with volunteers, and their mom joins them, along with dozens of others, for dinner.

“It’s good food — probably better than something I would make,” said Kalter, who lives near the café’s Rensselaer Street location. “The kids are there, staying safe and off the street and getting their homework done, then we all get to have dinner together. I like that it’s there for us.”

We are in a season of abundance, from the orange riot of pumpkins brightening fields and front porches last month to Thanksgiving tables  that later this week will be laden with zeppelinesque bronzed turkeys.

For many, the indulgent period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve brings with it belt-stretching meals, noshing and quaffing at parties, extra nibbles at the office courtesy of colleagues’ confections.

But it is also a time of giving back and mindfulness of the lesser fortunes of others. Just one such effort, the 46th annual Equinox Thanksgiving Day Community Dinner in Albany, will bring together an estimated 3,600 volunteers to handle every aspect of the planning, preparation, serving and delivery on Thursday of Thanksgiving meals to about 10,000 people.

While significant in its symbolism and thus powerful in its appeal to volunteers, Thanksgiving dinner is but a single meal out of the nearly 1,100 an average American consumes annually. Hunger in the United States is a daily problem: About 46 million people, or one in seven Americans, last year relied on food banks and free-meal programs for daily nutrition, according to Hunger in America, a quadrennial study conducted by a network of 200 food banks called Feeding America.

Locally, the Latham-based Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York annually provides food for 325,000 people in 23 counties. Some are classified as “hungry” — in immediate need of food; a larger group is considered “food insecure,” meaning they experience from occasional to  weekly uncertainty about whether they will be able to feed themselves and their families.

Poverty and hunger intertwine complexly, but the former is not a guarantee of the latter; nor does lifting a person or family from poverty necessarily alleviate hunger. And regular employment doesn’t prevent people from going hungry: The working poor comprise approximately 40 percent of those receiving assistance from the agencies served by the Regional Food Bank, said its executive director, Mark Quandt.

“That number has definitely grown over the years,” said Quandt, who has run the agency since 1984.

As governments, independent social-services nonprofits, religious organizations and researchers have studied the seemingly intractable problems of hunger and its pernicious sibling of poor nutrition, tactics to battle them have changed and multiplied. Dozens of soup kitchens and food pantries in the Capital Region address emergency needs in traditional ways, by providing prepared meals or ingredients to those who lack the access, resources or ability to feed themselves.

The South End Children’s Café offers another model: free prepared dinners served weekdays in a restaurant-style atmosphere.

Open for just three weeks and located in but not officially affiliated with the Reigning Life Family Church, the café immediately exceeded its projections by 25 percent, feeding 50 people nightly, Monday through Friday, since Nov. 2. As its name suggests, the charity is intended primarily for children, though members of their immediate family are also welcome. For reasons both legal and logistical, the café requires a parent or guardian enroll a child as a member, but, “If a new kid showed up the door and wanted to eat, I’d probably let him,” said the café’s founder, Tracie Killar. “I’d try to track down a parent just to make sure it was OK, but I wouldn’t turn him away.” (Adults not involved with an enrolled child are not allowed.)

The South End Children’s Café was a brainstorm of Killar’s after she turned 50, two years ago, and was reflecting on the next direction of a working life spent with nonprofits. With a family history in the South End and as founder of an after-school art program that operated for a decade in the neighborhood, she knew she wanted to continue contributing to its residents. The café, as she describes it, is a place that offers “free, healthy meals in a café setting, served with dignity.”

The café is staffed by Killar and 50 volunteers, about half of whom are college students performing community service commitments. Volunteers are paired one-on-one with kids for after-school activities and homework before moving into the café space at 5 p.m. for dinner (pre-K through sixth grade), followed at 5:30 by older students from the church’s after-school and evening programs.

Dinner starts with a salad — “I’m shocked at how many kids are eating their salads,” Killar said — followed by a different entrée nightly and a (relatively) healthful dessert. “We’ve been having lots of things with apples lately — because we got a bunch donated,” Killar said. “That’s how some things are dictated, by what we get.”

Menus are mapped out by a volunteer committee of nutritionists and chefs. Canned goods and other nonperishables in the larder are donated; Killar makes weekly shopping trips for meat and, if she hasn’t been able to source it from an agency, produce.

“My kids are talking about food even more than they did before we started going there,” Kalter said. “It’s definitely more a subject of our conversation.”

Though the café doesn’t offer formal nutrition classes for its guests, the kids’ involvement in preparation and consumption of healthy meals is part of another approach to serving populations that are food-insecure or have diminished access to fresh food: education.

Capital Roots, formerly known as Capital District Community Gardens, has among its programs the Veggie Mobile. The truck brings an array of fresh produce to urban food deserts — neighborhoods without nearby supermarkets — in Albany, Cohoes, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Cohoes, all sold at below-supermarket prices. Recipes are available to help customers learn how to prepare available ingredients. In addition to operating 51 community gardens in four counties, Lansingburgh-based Capital Roots also sells wholesale-priced produce to small inner-city markets and convenience stores, and sets affordable prices for the shops, as part of its Healthy Stores program. Its multifaceted food-education efforts include the Produce Project, which employs at-risk students from Troy High School to operate and sell food from Capital Roots’ urban farm; and Tastes Good, which sends nutrition educators into pre-K through second-grade classrooms.

“The little ones are very receptive to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Amy Klein, Capital Roots’ executive director for the past 19 years.

“They get excited about it, and they bring that enthusiasm back to their families,” she said. “If we’re talking to the kids about broccoli, we make sure to let the families know where they can purchase broccoli from the Veggie Mobile or Healthy Stores” programs.”

Nutrition, education, urban farming and the arts come together at The Sanctuary for Independent Media, in Troy’s impoverished North-Central neighborhood. Originally a funky collective space for arts events, lectures, films and media-making, the Sanctuary has become a community-focused nonprofit that operates gardens in its neighborhood — some for food, others with plants designed to suck up toxins from land spoiled by years of industrial pollution; runs summer-employment programs for kids; and organizes neighborhood celebrations.

One such party, the StoryHarvest Festival, was held Sept. 26 at Freedom Square, a Sanctuary-developed outdoor performance and gathering space. Among the attendees were Jerry Ford Jr. of South Troy and his sons Jerry III, 12; and Jeri-yah, 9.

“They have tremendous activities for kid and families,” Ford said of the Sanctuary. “This year, at (StoryHarvest), they had a cider press, and it blew the boys’ minds. Every time I looked around … they were back over there making cider.” Later, he and the boys trundled a wheelbarrow of apple pulp to a compost pile in one of the Sanctuary’s vegetable gardens. Along the way, he plucked a cherry tomato from one of the garden’s plants and popped it in his mouth.

The boys were astonished. “You can eat that?!” they exclaimed, according to their father. Ford explained how the compost pile they’d just contributed to would be used as fertilizer to grow food. The family plans to have a vegetable garden next summer.

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