At the hottest new restaurant in Albany’s South End, the lights are low, but the ambiance is lively.
The tables are dressed with fresh linen, elegant water carafes and simple floral centerpieces. The décor is DIY trendy. A glittering chandelier made from silverware and wire catches the light as dozens of patrons enjoy meals made with organic, local ingredients.
"To serve people with dignity and to let everybody have food equity/food justice is really important," says Café founder Tracie Killar. "Why do some people get to go to the store and buy whatever fruits and vegetables they want and others have to buy high-sodium processed foods? To me it’s just not fair and it’s sad."
Food insecurity affects millions of Americans. The U-S Department of Agriculture says 15.3 million American children under age 18 lived in “food-insecure” homes in 2014. It has become so concerning to health officials that this year the American Academy of Pediatrics started recommending that pediatricians screen their patients for malnutrition caused by a lack of consistent access to food. It’s a major problem with many causes — and solutions have been hard to come by.
Killar whipped up the idea for the Café, which serves dinner to about 20 kids and their families five nights a week. It opened at the beginning of November in a space inside the Reigning Life Family Church. The Church also lends them its commercial kitchen and pantry storage space. Killar, who has been running community programs in the neighborhood since 2000, says she was inspired by Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen Community Café in New Jersey, where patrons pay what they can or volunteer to help run it.
Right now the Café relies entirely on volunteers and food donations to operate. Killar says they have plans to apply for grants and to hold future fundraisers, but they’re taking the first few weeks to learn what works best for the children and community.
"I just want to create a relationship with the kids and have them feel a part of the café and maybe take ownership in the café." Killar says. "Someday I hope there’s someone from the community who wants to take over this and truly make it a community café."
So what’s on the menu? Eight-year-old Zaire says applesauce, noodles and porkchops. Zaire is one of the patrons, but he also volunteers as one of the servers. He comes to the café once a week. His mother LaStacia Morris sometimes joins him for dinner if she can get out of work in time.
"It helps out," Morris says. "The fact that it’s free is a blessing. Times are hard nowadays so it’s a great program, and I really appreciate it."
Zaire speeds away, intent on delivering a message to the kitchen about the status of things in the dining room. In the kitchen, a group of adult volunteers gathers around a large prep table. They’re getting briefed on how to plate the dinner, which was donated by a local restaurant.
Albany resident Alyssa Hardy is the ringleader of today’s volunteer group. She gathered seven of her friends to come in after she learned about the Café on Facebook.
"It's an awesome thing to do," Hardy said.
Volunteers can make tax-exempt donations of food and supplies. Some have donated subscriptions to local farm shares. Volunteers can also help in the kitchen and with serving. Or they can come to hang out with the kids and help with homework.
Back in the dining room, the kids are gearing up for dessert. Twenty-year-old Marquis Hodge-Humphreys hangs out toward the back of the café, surveying the scene. He grew up in the South End, and at times has struggled with food insecurity and homelessness. He's now a liberal arts student at Schenectady County Community College, and serves on the Café’s advisory board.
"Myself and everybody I knew growing up struggled just getting food and having food," Hodge-Humphreys recalls. "I remember nights going to bed hungry, I remember some nights hearing about kids stealing food from the store from various places just because they didn’t have anything to eat or didn’t have the support when there was no food."
Hodge-Humphreys says he's hoping to continue his work with the Café as it takes off.
"I think this is a great place for the community, it’s an amazing first step and an amazing direction."
The South End Children’s Café has two seatings every weeknight at 5 and 5:30.