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A park, a pool and a path to ease hunger

Updated: 2013-07-29T15:52:04Z

By TIM ENGLE

The Kansas City Star

Tanisha Willis and her church crew, set up outside a Kansas City swimming pool Thursday afternoon, probably could have attracted plenty of kids without uttering a word.

They were, after all, handing out free food.

But standing still and staying silent doesn’t seem to be the way Willis operates. It’s go-go-go. So as the clock approached 1 p.m., with two coolers and some cardboard boxes in place on the sidewalk, the energetic pastor rattled off assignments.

One church member was to be in charge of hand sanitizing. Someone else: the head count. Two young guys were dispatched to nearby apartments to hustle customers.

Willis, pastor of New Outreach Worship Center — a church she started in her home last January — would later take the megaphone herself and head down the street to do her own canvassing.

The cause: feeding children who, because it’s summer and school’s out, might be going hungry.

The church provides the labor, but the food comes from Harvesters — The Community Food Network. The menu Thursday: ham sandwiches, apple slices, oranges, cartons of milk and paper bags stuffed with cheese sticks, soy nuts and other items.

Feeding people is nothing new for Harvesters, but the location is. This “Kids Cafe” at the Grove Park pool, near Truman Road and Benton Boulevard, is Harvesters’ only outdoor feeding program in the Kansas City area. Six others at parks or pools also debuted this summer outside the metropolitan area.

“The goal is to provide the food in areas where there’s need and to take the food to where the children are,” said Ellen Feldhausen, director of communications for Harvesters. She added that for some kids, the free or reduced-price breakfast and/or lunch they get at school might be their only meals.

Which makes summer a tough time for struggling families and the organizations trying to help them.

Fifty-six other Kids Cafes in Harvesters’ 26-county region are indoors, at places like schools, libraries and community centers. Some schools and churches offer summer meal programs not affiliated with Harvesters.

On Thursday, Willis and seven church volunteers joined hands in a circle and prayed before they started giving out food. “Let them come from the north, south, east and west, Lord God,” Willis said.

Aliciea Sampson predicted they would. “Nice hot day. Good for swimming,” she observed. “Come and get your snacks.”

“And get told about Christ,” chimed in Gavin Minor, who goes to a different church but was helping out.

A line started to form down the sidewalk. “Step right up!” yelled Sampson. Church members thrust sandwiches and fruit into kids’ hands — one little girl in a swimsuit could barely contain the bounty.

“God bless you all,” Sampson called after children as they made their way to the pool. Some kids returned the blessing or offered, “Thank you!”

Up at the admission window of the pool, Johnny McNamara, 9, of Kansas City, Kan., looked over his haul and declared he liked apple slices the best.

“My favorite part is eating food and swimming,” he said.

Noah Ferguson, 12, also of KCK, said he’s here just on Thursdays because swimming “only costs a dollar.” The free food’s a bonus. (On other days, admission is $3.)

Not a coincidence, as it turns out. Being on hand with free food the same day it costs less to swim was a strategic move, Willis said.

But not everyone who leaves with food stays to swim. Some bring their small children from apartments across from the park and then return home. Maybe they can’t even afford the buck to go swimming, said Willis, who through her church offers other feeding programs and plans to do more.

“This” — the Kids Cafe at Grove Park pool — “is just a small beginning for her,” said Chessie Hammons, whom Willis calls her “spiritual mom.”

Jasmine Hernandez, a college student who manages the pool, praises the summer meals program. The pool opens at 1 p.m. daily, and a lot of kids will stay until it shuts down at 7. Some kids, “we can tell they don’t have food,” Hernandez said.

The pool doesn’t usually allow food on the deck, but staffers make an exception on Kids Cafe Thursdays. And they know some of the snacks get taken home to younger siblings.

The pool has no vending machines — they kept getting broken into — and no snack bar. If kids have money, they might walk three blocks to a McDonald’s or a convenience store, she said.

But summer is winding down. The “grand finale” of the Grove Park meal program, as Willis called it on her megaphone, is next Thursday starting at 1. Some weeks, church members have stayed an hour. Some weeks, two.

They’ve been known to serve as many as 80 kids an hour.

Chances are, Harvesters will expand the park and pool program in summers to come. They’ll be looking for community partners — nonprofit organizations like Willis’ church — to step up.

Because summer, which should be a kid’s favorite time of year, isn’t much fun when your stomach’s rumbling.

To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or email tengle@kcstar.com. On Twitter: @tim_engle Childhood hunger In the 26-county area that Harvesters serves — northwest Missouri and northeast Kansas — about one in five children under 18 are, at any given time, in danger of missing a meal. That’s 121,290 kids. “It’s not that they never have food. It’s that at some point in the month, they’re missing meals,” said Harvesters’ Ellen Feldhausen. During the school year, Harvesters’ BackSnack program provides backpacks of food for low-income kids to take home on weekends. It has expanded beyond school, too: This is the third year for a summer BackSnack program. About 5,000 students at 68 sites take food home that way. Harvesters, which provides food to 620 nonprofit groups for distribution, hasn’t seen signs that the

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