Tevora Isom doesn't like tuna fish, but considering the fun she's having, it's really not that bad. Before lunch is over, she will have made some new friends and learned about dental hygiene, among other things. Tevora is just one of the 40 youngsters sitting at the tables of the Mid-South's only weekly restaurant-style food program for children.
Every Wednesday afternoon at St. John's Methodist Church, volunteers from various organizations come together to prepare and serve meals for Kids Café. It's a program that serves elementary and middle school students in the Peabody-Vance neighborhood a balanced meal and a nutritional lesson.
"Many [of the participants] are children of single, working moms who are doing the best they can," said Food Bank staffer Susan Sanford. "Some of the kids might not have had a meal since lunch at school and may not eat again until breakfast at school the next day."
Kids Café was launched in 1993 as a program of America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest domestic hunger-relief organization. Each café is opened in cooperation with an area food bank and in conjunction with another nonprofit organization with established youth programs. There are currently more than 370 Kids Cafés with 79 affiliates in 31 states.
Memphis' first Kids Café is partnered with New Pathways Resource Center, which is associated with MIFA. The center provides volunteers each week to serve the meals and chaperone. The Kids Café has become a "mini-United Nations" of sorts, with Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino, African-American, and Caucasian participants. No child is turned away and, parents are welcome to attend as well. But, warned Sanford, the café is not a soup kitchen and parents must help serve.
"This is a tried-and-true program, serving kids in the early evening in a safe, comfortable environment," said Sanford. "The children are comfortable at St. John's [which is donating the space] because they come to other programs here, like [Boy and Girl] Scouts."
Methodist Healthcare has also come aboard as a program sponsor, with one of the hospital's corporate chefs preparing the weekly meals. "I do it for the kids," said bear-size chef Luther Stingley. "This place is special. Your food is brought to your table. It's one-on-one service; it's personal. You go to an all-you-can-eat buffet and you don't see a server. Once I got involved, I couldn't stop."
"Since some of the children only get one meal a day, some of their appetites and stomachs are small, so we have to really encourage them to eat more," said Daphne Collins of New Pathways. "It's very gratifying to be able to step in and do things about child hunger. Hopefully, we'll see the number of hungry children decrease."
In addition to the meal, the participants are also taught lessons each week on dental and personal hygiene and nutrition. Dental hygienists from UT Medical Center have visited the café and taught proper tooth-brushing and flossing techniques. Memphis Grizzlies strength coach Mike Douglas has talked to the kids about the importance of healthy eating, and Methodist Healthcare is planning health screenings.
"I love the kids," said Clarissa Collins, one of the high school students who volunteer with the program. "I like to communicate with them and share my ideas with them."
The Memphis Kids Café organizers have applied for grants to open other cafés throughout the city. "The procedure is to open a Kids Café with an agency that has a captive audience of children, and with New Pathways, there was a program with the church, so we decided to open it here," said Food Bank agency-relations director Estella Mayhue-Greer. "But the ones that we're looking at in the future are associated with the Boys and Girls Clubs, because they're seeing 50 to 100 children daily. Those children are there on a regular basis, and this is an opportunity to give them a nutritious meal."
The next café is planned for the John Dustin Buckman Boys and Girls Club in North Memphis, with a third slated for the Downtown Porter Boys and Girls Club.