Children in need dine on food donated by local restaurants
FARGO - When the foil-covered pans arrive at the Boys & Girls Club of the Red River Valley, kids eagerly gather around to see what's inside.
Some days, it's pasta, like the spinach fettuccine Alfredo that's become 13-year-old Ali Madi's favorite meal.
"It actually has taste," he says, adding that it was his first time eating the creamy pasta dish.
No matter what's for dinner, the 40 to 50 regular Boys & Girls Club members go home with full bellies.
Since September, the elementary- to high school-aged club members have dined on kid-friendly gourmet food donated by Monte's Downtown, The Beefsteak Club and Mezzaluna three days a week. Food purchased from the Great Plains Food Bank and bread donated by Holsum Bakery in Fargo make up the other two evening meals.
The club's executive director, Robin Nelson, started searching for a way to feed the kids dinner after she picked up an 11-year-old club member at football camp in July. She handed him a sports drink, and he told her it was the only thing he'd had to "eat" all day.
His words prompted Nelson to find out how many other Boys & Girls Club members were going to bed with growling tummies. She quickly learned that many of the children weren't being fed, or at least not enough, at home.
"They're either angry or afraid to go home. Some, when they get home, Mom's passed out. They don't know what they're going home to. They get here, and they're hungry. It's just hard," Nelson says. "General awareness of what's going on in the community is a big deal."
Three-quarters of the children enrolled in the Boys & Girls Club, 2500 18th St. S., live below the federal poverty line, which ranges from $15,510 for a family/household of two to $31,590 for a family of six, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Sixty-three percent of the children live in households less than $14,999 in annual income.
Although there are a variety of family circumstances, most club children live with two to nine family members, Nelson says. Several children live with extended family members or have a one-parent household. Some live in multiple households so their parent(s) can work overnight.
"There are a lot of situations as to why they don't get as balanced of a meal as they should," Nelson says.
Chefs step in to help
Through Boys & Girls Club board members, Nelson connected with a group of local chefs who wanted to help feed the kids. The first was Christian D'Agostino, the executive chef and owner of Monte's Downtown.
"When you hear a story about kids who are hungry - they can't feed themselves - it's hard to turn down. I have kids of my own, so it hits home," he says.
D'Agostino insisted on personally delivering the first few meals.
"It pains me that there has to be places like this. It's great, but we have so many children in need. We're a small town; I can't imagine what it's like in a big city. It's hard to see," he says.
Soon after, two other chefs came on board: Scott Motschenbacher, the executive chef of The Beefsteak Club, and Eric Watson, executive chef of Mezzaluna. They'd learned about the need through the local branch of the American Culinary Federation, which chapter president Watson describes as "a springboard for getting chefs talking."
Organizations like the Boys & Girls Club have personal meaning for the Mezzaluna chef, who says he was a troubled youth.
"I'm not suggesting they're all troubled, but I just know that some of them don't have a place to go at certain times of the day. I know what that was like. I was a turnkey kid," Watson says.
The meals contain a protein source and carbohydrates, and the club supplements the meals with fruit and milk. Motschenbacher approaches it the same way he comes up with nightly chef's specials, using whatever's in the pantry. Dishes are often hearty and simple, like biscuits and gravy or macaroni and cheese.
"A lot of these kids are less fortunate than most. If we can provide them with some good food, I'm all for it," he says. "Sending them home with a full stomach, that's the most important thing for me as a chef."
Besides feeding the kids, Nelson's hoping to expand the meal program to include social skills like table manners and activities that'll help them learn more about the restaurant industry and the careers it offers.
"A lot of them don't get to sit at a dinner table," Nelson says. "A lot of these kids will say you are like my family."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525