Friday, January 16, 2015

The 1 in 5: A guaranteed meal

A group of boys at the Falcon Park Kids Cafe hang out after finishing their meal.

Every day after school around 3 o’clock, a bus full of children arrives at the Falcon Park Recreation Center in Palatine for the Kids Cafe. The students pour out, laughing and smiling, toting backpacks full of homework. They are a mix of first through sixth graders, bundled in brightly colored hats, coats and scarves. Despite their differences in age, they have one thing in common: they are all at risk of hunger.

“The resources for healthy, affordable food just don’t exist in this area,” said Courtney Renwick, the program coordinator for the Buehler YMCA’s Kids Cafe at Falcon Park.

Even though it is surrounded by an affluent suburban community, the Kids Cafe – a Greater Chicago Food Depository program – fills a significant need, as one in seven children in Palatine lives in poverty.

“There’s a huge disparity between residents in Palatine,” Courtney said. “Some are well off, but there is also a population that is really struggling.”

The Kids Cafe serves a meal to approximately 40 children each day. On a recent Wednesday, students received a tuna sandwich, fruit, raisins and milk. Some of the children won’t eat again until breakfast at school the following morning.

“I have to fight for food when I go home,” said 12-year-old Ulysses. “I have four sisters and they eat first.”

For Courtney, Ulysses’ situation is neither surprising nor unique.

“There are a lot of basic necessities that aren’t being met in this community,” she said. “You can just tell by how these kids eat the meals. They eat like there’s no tomorrow.”

The program also focuses on homework help.

“Getting meals goes hand-in-hand with good academic performance,” Courtney said.

Around 5 o’clock, a bus picks up the children to take them home. Some will go home to find that there is not a meal waiting for them.

“My favorite fruit is bananas,” Ulysses said. “But we don’t get those at home.”

Despite the inconsistency at home, Ulysses and the rest of the children can count on returning to the Kids Cafe tomorrow, with the guarantee of another meal.

“When they’re here we know they’re getting at least one nutritious meal, and that’s what’s important,” she said.

Kids Cafes are just one of the programs funded by the Child Nutrition Reauthorization – a federal law that supports children’s programs. The law is set to expire on Sep. 30, 2015.

To learn how to get involved in the Food Depository’s advocacy efforts, visit

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The 1 in 5: Winter break

9-year-old Leo eats a nutritious meal at the Union League Boys & Girls Club Club One Kids Cafe.

During the summer months many children in Cook County face hunger as they are away from free and reduced price school meals. When classes resume in September, thousands of students receive the meals they need to stay healthy.
Families face the same challenge during winter break.

That’s why many Greater Chicago Food Depository Kids Cafes are open throughout the holiday season, including the Union League Boys & Girls Clubs Club One in the Pilsen neighborhood.

“Unfortunately for a lot of the kids that come to the Club during winter break, the meal they get here might be the only meal they’re getting during the day,” said Ben Medina, assistant club director.

Throughout the year, but especially during the holidays, the need among families is significant in Pilsen, Ben says.

“A lot of our kids’ parents are barely making ends meet,” he said. “They’re working graveyard shifts, or two or three jobs a day making minimum wage.”

Children receive a hot meal prepared by the Food Depository at the Kids Cafe. In addition, they can play sports or, when school is in session, do their homework. The Kids Cafe serves approximately 150 children each day. One of them is 9-year-old Leo, a fourth-grader who’s been coming to the Club for the past two years.

Leo has a brother and sister. His mom works during the day and his dad works at night to support the family.

“I like the fruit and vegetables I get here,” he said.

With the food Leo eats at the Kids Cafe, he’s able to stay healthy and concentrate on his favorite subject in school.

“I really like math,” he said. “My favorite homework is math and I like playing on the computers too.”

Also eating a meal at the Kids Cafe was 15-year-old Cesar, a quiet freshman who plays football and is on the wrestling team. For him, the healthy meals he eats at the Club are important to staying in shape.

“I try to eat the oranges and apples when I’m here,” he said. “They’re good to eat for sports.”

Whether it’s winter break, during the summer, or when school is in session, children face hunger in Pilsen and across Cook County. But the response is strong.

“I know this program really makes a difference,” Ben said. “It’s awesome to see the kids getting a well-rounded meal.”

Friday, December 19, 2014

The 1 in 5: Going to school, receiving food

As the sun came up on a chilly Thursday morning, Tiffany Andrews was already heading out the door with her two children. They were going to Chavez Elementary School in the Back of the Yards neighborhood to drop her 10-year-old daughter off for school. They were also at the school to get food at the Healthy Kids Market.

“This helps us out a lot,” Tiffany said. “We only have one income right now, so it’s a big deal to get extra food. Plus, it’s easy for me because I’m here already dropping my daughter off.”

The Healthy Kids Market is for families with children at the school. On that morning, it was distributing onions, green bell peppers, beets, oranges and shelf-stable food like oatmeal and canned vegetables.

“Fruit is really pricey these days,” Tiffany said. “Getting it here helps us save money for other living expenses.”

Tiffany’s husband works full-time in a nearby warehouse. She had a steady job as a receptionist since 2006, but recently became unemployed. She is actively looking for a job, but with only one income, providing food for her children can be difficult.

“We try to focus as best we can on nutritious food,” she said. “They love bananas and pears and all that, but it’s not easy to always provide those.”

Tiffany’s family is one of many in the neighborhood who turn to the program for food occasionally.
Mayra Sedano, a volunteer with a son and daughter at the school, sees the benefit of the Market.

“There are a lot of kids here who rely on the fruit and vegetables they get here. When families run out, they can’t really afford to buy more,” she said.

Mayra receives food as well.

“My daughter is diabetic and she needs to eat healthy, so I can stretch what we get here into meals for the week,” she said.

The Market at Chavez, one of 10 Healthy Kids Markets in Chicago Public Schools, serves approximately 700 households per month.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The 1 in 5: Providing fresh fruit after school

Bianca, left, and MaKayla, right, eat Kids Cafe meals at the Rauner Family Y in Little Village.
Mercedes Cruz looked on as her two daughters, 6-year-old MaKayla and 7-year-old Bianca, each happily peeled an orange at a Kids Cafe in the Little Village neighborhood. For the two children, it was just another day at the after school program. But Mercedes knew the importance of the oranges.

“I can’t afford to send them to school with fresh fruit, so it’s great that they’re getting it here,” she said.

MaKayla and Bianca have been enrolled in the program at the Rauner Family Y since September. The food they receive makes a significant impact.

“It really helps with our budget,” Mercedes said.

Mercedes works as a cashier at a local store. For the most part, she’s working 35-40 hours per week. But sometimes, when the store isn’t as busy, her hours decrease. A fluctuating paycheck makes it difficult to budget and afford food on a consistent basis.

“The kids getting food here is probably saving me $200 per week,” she said. “It would be tough to afford that so this helps a lot.”

Mercedes’ boyfriend works the overnight shift at the grocery store. Despite both individuals having jobs, it can still be a struggle to make ends meet.

“At the end of the week, there’s always a new bill that has to be paid,” Mercedes said. “It gets to be a lot.”

For Bianca and MaKayla, the Kids Cafe means not being hungry after school, and having a place to get their homework done. Getting a variety of fresh fruit is a highlight, too.

“I really like the bananas and grapes,” MaKayla said, in between orange slices.

The children are part of a group of about 25 who receive meals every day at the program.

“The need is very high in this community,” said Maria Leon, the Y’s youth and family program director. “There are a lot of people here who need the help.”

To address the need, Maria hopes to expand enrollment in the future. But for now, the program remains a vital part of a healthy childhood for Bianca, MaKayla, and dozens of other children in our community.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The 1 in 5: Making healthy choices

Every day after school, 7-year-old Ja’Mirrah Terry and her 8-year-old sister Ja’Meyah come to the McCormick Tribune Y Kids CafĂ© inside the Oakley Square apartments. In the program, they work on their homework, play games and receive a healthy meal prepared by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

The sisters both look forward to the healthy food they receive at the Kids Cafe, which generally includes fruit, a vegetable a sandwich and milk. The nutritious meals are prepared from scratch by staff and students of the Food Depository’s food service job-training program, Chicago’s Community Kitchens.

“We get hummus and healthy stuff that we like here,” said Ja’Mirrah.

“My favorite are the apples,” her sister chimed in.

Because they’re eating healthy in school and at the Kids Cafe, the children’s mother, Aiesha, notices that they’re both more willing to make healthy choices at the grocery store.

“Instead of asking me to buy a bunch of sweet stuff, I’m trying to buy more healthy stuff because that’s what they want,” she said.

For Aiesha, the Kids Cafe is essential. She works in home care and is looking for more hours, but putting food on the table consistently can be a struggle.

“It helps me bridge the gap because I receive SNAP and am working two days a week, but sometimes that’s not enough.”

With the Kids Cafe, she knows her daughters will have a good meal after school.

“It makes sure they have a better, healthier way of life,” she said.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The 1 in 5: Realizing potential

Mihriba Amin, center, distributes fresh produce at the Healthy Kids Market.

On a recent Friday morning, the halls of Lloyd Elementary School in the Hermosa neighborhood should have been quiet and empty.  It was the start of a long weekend and a day off for the students.

Yet, the school was buzzing with activity. A line of laughing, smiling parents surrounded by children enjoying the cool November morning stretched down the sidewalk in front of the school. The families were there for a Healthy Kids Market distribution.

“See that line? It’s a long weekend. People don’t need to be here,” said Mihriba Amin, the program coordinator. “But they’re here because they need the food.”

The Market serves approximately 300 families at a weekly distribution. It is available to families with children in the school.

“The economy has hit this neighborhood hard,” Mihriba said. “Not many of the families here can get fresh produce.”

At the Market, parents were receiving fresh corn, apples, oranges, and cucumbers in addition to shelf stable food like bags of rice and canned items. Mihriba has been managing the program since it started five years ago. She chose Fridays for the distribution to target a specific need in the community.

“Kids have breakfast and lunch at school during the week,” she said. “But what happens on the weekend? Knowing that children will have food on Saturday and Sunday means so much to me.”

Mihriba understands how much the market means to the families, because she once struggled to afford food.

“I know where they’re coming from,” she said. “I know how much many of these families are battling.”

Mihriba and her husband came to the United States from Bosnia when she was 30 years old. She had a degree in agricultural engineering and her husband had a degree in civil engineering. But their degrees did not transfer to the U.S.
Not knowing English and unable to find a job, Mihriba applied for and began receiving SNAP benefits. She started working at a daycare and her husband got a job overnight cleaning at a hotel. Eventually they saved enough to afford a house and were able to get the appropriate credits to transfer their degrees.

Throughout her difficult transition, Mihriba saw the potential in herself and refused to give up. She knows the Healthy Kids Market helps families realize that potential within themselves.

“I did it. I know these families can too,” she said.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The 1 in 5: 'How can you do homework when your stomach is growling?'

Jaylen receives a meal and gets homework done at a Kids Cafe site in North Lawndale.
In our community, hundreds of thousands of children face hunger every day. But, the Greater Chicago Food Depository and other organizations provide programs designed to fight childhood hunger.

On September 30, 2015, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization - the federal law that funds many of those programs - is set to expire.

Twice a month for the next year, we will be telling stories about the importance of those programs. These are the real stories of the 1 in 5 children in Cook County who face food insecurity and the programs that make an impact on their lives.

Seven-year-old Jaylen was happily scribbling away on a piece of lined paper, writing about a trip to Florida he wants to take one day. Despite the chatter of children around him, the second grader was fully focused on his homework assignment.

“My mom and dad want me to do as much homework as I can here,” he said, taking a moment to look up from his paper. “It’s easier to do homework here because when I get hungry I get distracted.”

Every day, Jaylen eats a meal at the Family Focus Lawndale after school program, which receives Kids Cafe meals from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. He’s one of approximately 60 children enrolled in the program, which fills a critical need in the community.

“A lot of these kids probably wouldn’t eat at night if they didn’t get a meal here,” said Roosevelt Smith, the program coordinator.

In North Lawndale, the child poverty rate is 58 percent. And, according to Roosevelt, healthy food options are limited.

“Children don’t get a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables around here,” he said.

That’s why the federally funded Kids Cafe meals are so important. Generally they include a sandwich, fruit and a vegetable.

For Tamika Beverley, the meals her twin 7-year-olds receive at Family Focus are a “godsend.”
“How can they focus when they’re hungry?” she said.

Tamika works full-time at the post office and picks her children up around 5 p.m. In addition to receiving a meal at the program, they get schoolwork done. But for Tamika, the biggest benefit of the program goes back to nutrition.

“How can you do homework when your stomach is growling?” she said. “This knocks the edge off.”