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.