Volunteers from the Sun Cities who devote time to the St. Mary’s Food Bank Alliance in Surprise don’t want Arizona children to go to bed hungry.
They see the faces of hunger while others just see statistics:
• One in four children in the state are living in poverty, amounting to more than 260,000 children in Maricopa Country alone.
• In Surprise, nearly 24 percent of households fall at or below the poverty level.
• Arizona ranks dead last in an America’s Health Ranking study with the greatest number of children in poverty.
The St. Mary’s Kids Cafe program is working toward changing those numbers by offering daily meals to impoverished children.
“Child hunger is getting worse,” said Laura Brill, the Kids Cafe manager, calling these statistics “disturbing and unacceptable.”
The program feeds about 1,700 school-age children at 32 different locations every day, but with a new building expansion, Brill hopes to expand that number to 3,000 over the summer and 4,000 by the end of the year.
The program will be moving next week to a renovated former storage space in the westside location of St. Mary’s, so volunteers and staff can pack, store and assemble the meals, which include sandwiches and fruit and vegetables, all in one place.
The volunteers appreciate the commitment to the westside location, said Jan Wells, who helps coordinate the volunteers.
“Everybody is very excited,” she said.
Wells hopes to expand the menu offered. Right now, volunteers make up ham sandwiches, beef and ranch wraps or other varieties of sandwiches.
“Our goal is to provide that nutritional meal,” she said.
Brill said children living in poverty don’t eat well because it’s usually the highly processed foods lacking in significant nutritional value that are the cheapest to buy and that leads not only to poorer general health, but fatigue, hospitalizations, behavioral difficulties and impaired performance in school.
Brill said the goal of the program, which exists on a combination of donations and government funding, is to give children consistent daily nutrition, and it’s about giving them both quantity and quality food.
“This is the future of Arizona, and we feel like we need to invest now,” Brill said.
It’s important to sustain that nutrition during the summer, and more difficult to do because the children aren’t in school, she said.
“We want to kind of keep them steady,” Brill said. “We want the kids to be ready for when school starts back up.”
The goal is to expand the Kids Cafe program to make 8,000 meals a day, but that’s a few years down the road, she said.
And for both the current and future expansion, the food bank needs new volunteers; both Brill and Wells emphasized their appreciation for the volunteers and the support of the Sun Cities and Surprise communities.
But it takes a lot of work, Brill said, stressing the need for volunteers looking for a more in-depth project who can adopt a Kids Cafe site to set up and track the program.
“We want to make sure we’re very mindful in our planning,” Brill said, explaining she doesn’t want to have to say to the children at the sites: “Sorry, we messed up, we’re not going to feed you anymore.”
If the program doesn’t get enough volunteers to visit sites, it can’t have as many locations and won’t be able to feed as many kids, Brill said.
The Kids Cafe program is also looking for potential new locations for the meal sites, which can be any place children have access to, from a church, playground or pool, or an apartment complex.
Volunteers interested in doing site visits can call Grace Rodil at 602-343-5629 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For volunteers looking to help prepare meals or do other work for St. Mary’s Westside location, call Jan Wells at 602-343-5637 or reach her by email at email@example.com.
Different sites looking to participate can call Melissa Jensen at 602-647-1820.