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More meals per gallon MARK JONES COMMUNITY ADVOCATE

Jimmy Gallagher, 11, enjoys an evening meal provided by the Commission on Economic Opportunity. The nonprofit group headquartered in Wilkes-Barre wants to expand its after-school and summertime meal delivery program.

TIMES LEADER STAFF PHOTO/S. JOHN WILKIN

Patrick DeCinti loads hot meals provided by the Commission on Economic Opportunity into an old Chevy Lumina minivan to be delivered to after-school programs. The nonprofit group in Wilkes-Barre is seeking donations for a new vehicle.

TIMES LEADER STAFF PHOTO/S. JOHN WILKIN

WILKES-BARRE – Worried that some area children don’t get the right foods – or enough food – the Commission on Economic Opportunity built a huge kitchen, hired a cook and drew up a plan to distribute healthy meals.

One small snag.

The vehicle that shuttles its food and drinks to children’s centers – a white Chevy Lumina – recently topped more than 118,000 miles and sometimes lacks enough cargo space to lug all the bulky milk crates and thermal containers.

The space crunch is most apparent in June and July when the program caters each day to between 700 and 1,000 children, most of whom are from low-income families. “In the summertime, we’re stacked right to the roof,” said Patrick DeCinti, a van driver/kitchen helper for the charitable group known as CEO. “It gets a little dangerous because the (containers) bounce around.”

CEO officials aim to replace the minivan with a new cargo van that can accommodate shelving and will cost nearly $25,000.

They are appealing to the community for financial support. Letters targeting people who have expressed an interest in the meal-delivery program will be mailed this week, the latest attempt to draw tax-deductible donations, said Gretchen Hunt, the food and nutrition programs manager.

CEO’s hearty meals help to fill a gap for many Wyoming Valley children who, while not famished day in and day out, might often go to bed hungry.

Many of them typically eat balanced, school-issued breakfasts and lunches but lack healthy options at night, on weekends and during summer vacations.

Oftentimes, their parents are at work, giving children sole responsibility for what ends up in their stomachs. “Either the kids are left with preparing meals for themselves – which means they’re probably subsisting on junk food – or they’re going to the local fast-food restaurant,” Hunt said.

By contrast, CEO’s menu is carefully concocted to fit the federal government’s food pyramid guidelines. One recent day’s dinner, for example, included chicken Caesar salad, a whole wheat roll, canned pears and milk.

Youngsters who get the adequate doses of fruits, grains, meats and so forth might be spared from health problems such as childhood obesity, according to the theory behind CEO’s food program.

Moreover, research suggests that kids who consistently have access to good foods are less likely to get sick and miss school, Hunt said. They also tend to be able to concentrate better and not be affected by classroom behavioral problems that beset children who often miss breakfast or don’t get enough to eat.

“If we want kids to succeed in life and go to college and get a good job and do all those things we say we want them to,” said Hunt, “they need a good start.”

More miles, more mouths

A new cargo van would allow CEO’s program to quickly expand, getting meals to more children at sites throughout Luzerne and Wyoming counties, Hunt said. It already reaches about 350 kids during the school year and nearly triple that in summer.

Hunt estimated the summer distribution could grow by 300 to 500 meals, based on the large number of community centers, parks and churches that offer activities and meals for children during the school vacation.

CEO currently dispatches its meals to about seven locations between Wilkes-Barre and Glen Lyon. Drop-off spots include the city’s Heights-Murray Elementary School, subsidized housing complexes and other community centers that provide after-school tutoring and support.

About two dozen students, for instance, go to the Boys & Girls Club in Plymouth, said center director Janie Symons.

The club serves as a safe haven, supplying children with homework help, crafts, games and “anything to keep them off of streets and out of trouble,” she said. Some students stay there until 7:30 p.m., or later, so Symons makes sure the CEO-provided meals get served promptly between 5 and 5:30 p.m. “Actually, for some of these kids, it might be the only evening meal they’re going to get,” she said.

Hunger remains a problem in many pockets of the United States. The condition is known in government jargon as “food insecurity,” reflecting not daily starvation, but rather the inability of some people to afford good food at times. An estimated 12.4 million children were living in “food insecure” homes during 2005, according to information distributed by America’s Second Harvest, a national food bank network.

The group also noted that, of all the children enrolled in school lunch programs, only a fraction participate in summer feeding programs that dish up free food when school is out.

Symons, whose club is based in a Luzerne County Housing Authority property, knows how important meal programs and community food banks can be.

“From what I see, there is a great necessity,” she said. “There are circumstances, unfortunately, where parents do not know where they are going to get food for their kids for a few days, and this helps them stretch out their budgets.

“Lots of times it’s people holding over for a paycheck to come in, holding over for food stamps, and just not having enough to stretch.”

Broccoli? ‘Give it a try’

CEO’s full-time cook tries to ensure that the children’s weekday meals are well-balanced, but also yummy.

Denise Bernatovich, who spent 25 years as a restaurant cook before assuming her current job in February, recently whipped up a “jello surprise” with mandarin oranges, cleverly injecting cottage cheese for added protein.

The day’s main entrée was cheese pierogies, a perennial hit with the students, she said. They also look forward to her taco salad.

That doesn’t mean Bernatovich shies from fixing ample broccoli and asparagus. She and other people connected with CEO’s meal distribution program try to reinforce healthy eating lessons among children, in some cases egging them to try new foods.

“We make each kid take a bit of it on their plate, whether they make a face at it or not,” said Bernatovich. “Give it a try, and if you don’t like it, you don’t need to eat it.”

Also, the kitchen tries to accommodate children’s food allergies, she said, noting that one girl can’t eat potatoes.

It costs about $100,000 to run CEO’s supplemental meal program for children, Hunt said. The state Department of Education reimburses the nonprofit group for meals, but doesn’t supply funds to cover transportation, labor and facility costs, she said.

That leaves CEO in a lurch when it comes to big-ticket items, such as a cargo van.

Although the organization missed out last month on a big grant that would have covered the vehicle’s total cost, it has snagged two smaller ones, Hunt said. They total $7,500.

Another option – applying to various government funding sources – probably won’t help in this case because the bureaucratic process tends to move too slowly.

“Something we ask for now,” said Hunt, “we might get in two years.”

GET INVOLVED

Help pay for a new cargo van. Checks can be mailed to the Commission on Economic Opportunity, PO Box 1127, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18703. Contributions are tax-deductible.

Organize food drives for CEO’s “backpack program.” Nutritious snacks donated to CEO are tucked into bags and distributed Fridays to children who otherwise might not eat good foods during weekends.

Volunteer. Helpers can assist with kitchen duty at CEO’s Wilkes-Barre headquarters, deliver meals to after-school programs at various Wyoming Valley locations or serve food to children at those sites. For information, call (800) 822-0359 or 826-0510.

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