Since 2001, Boys & Girls Clubs of Spokane County have offered a safe place for children ages 6 to 18 to spend their after-school hours. And since last January, the clubs have filled more than just empty hours – they’ve filled empty bellies.
While the clubs have always served a healthy snack, the impetus to offer dinner came from a conversation Northtown branch director Jason Anderson had with a hungry little boy.
“I heard from someone that he wasn’t getting proper nutrition at home,” Anderson said. “I pulled him aside and asked, ‘Do you have enough food at home?’ He said no, so we loaded his backpack with food and filled a bag with canned goods from our kitchen for him.”
When he related the conversation during a staff meeting there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. “We knew he wasn’t the only hungry kid,” said Alise Mnati, operations director.
About 75,000 meals later, she said the staff has come to realize that for some kids, the meal they receive at the club is the only meal they will eat once they leave school.
On a recent afternoon, the aroma of sloppy Joes filled the gym at the Northtown Club. Eight-year-old Nathan Helmer grinned and took a big bite. “I like making messes, and this makes a big mess!”
Fidel Nzohabonimana, 11, scooped up a strawberry and took a drink of chocolate milk. “I eat lunch at 11:20 at school,” he said. “So, it’s really nice of them to give us dinner.”
Although sloppy Joes are a big hit with the kids, Justin Denney, 9, has another favorite meal. “Their nachos are the bomb-diggity!”
The clubs purchase food from Food Services of America and receive donations from Second Harvest Food Bank.
Nearly 3,700 girls and boys are taking advantage of the programs, activities and services provided by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Spokane County. In addition to an after-school snack and dinner, a $10 per year membership allows kids to develop positive relationships with adults who serve as mentors and role models.
Club programs focus on education and career development, character and leadership development, health and life skills, arts and sports, and fitness and recreation.
When Mnati saw the response to the dinners, she decided to seize the opportunity to educate kids about proper nutrition. With a $10,000 grant from the city of Spokane, she launched the Be Great Eat Great program.
“We’d taught cooking classes before, but the kids weren’t able to make the recipes at home because they didn’t have the ingredients. It’s hard to cook when you only have Doritos and Mountain Dew,” she said.
With the Be Great Eat Great program, kids learn how to cook a healthy, well-balanced meal, and then are sent home with all the ingredients they need to replicate the meal at home for their families.
Registered dietitian Merri Lou Dobler teaches the classes. “When you get kids in the kitchen, the excitement just explodes,” she said.
Part of the excitement involves field trips. “We wanted to focus on local stores and local foods,” Mnati said.
Kids have traveled to Green Bluff, and visited businesses like Great Harvest Bread Co. and the Spokane Public Market.
Kjersten Higley, 11, said she enjoyed the cooking class. “My favorite recipe is the cheesy garlic biscuits and the fruit parfait.”
At the conclusion of the classes, the kids host a dinner and invite their families to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
The Be Great Eat Great program, coupled with the daily dinners, help the Boys & Girls Clubs fight childhood obesity while offering nutrition education.
“We want the kids to have the right food, but also to take what they’ve learned to their families,” said Erin McGann, special events/marketing director. “It’s one thing to feed them, but it’s another thing for them to develop lifelong healthy eating habits.”