- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

NEW LONDON, Conn. - Members of the New London Youth Organization spent months clearing 4 million toothpaste tubes out of an old warehouse.

Now they have transformed the space into a bright, airy youth center where teens can play pool, get homework help and eat a nutritious dinner at tables draped in red-and-white checked cloths.

The dining is a key component of the new Kids Cafe, the second in Connecticut and one of 1,300 nationwide.

The program, sponsored by America’s Second Harvest, aims to make sure children from low-income homes get hot meals in the evening to supplement free or reduced-price school lunches.

“If a child isn’t receiving proper nutrition, it can affect their development — physical, mental and emotional,” said Ross Fraser of America’s Second Harvest, a national network of food banks.

The programs can be even more important during vacation months, when children aren’t fed at school and summer programs don’t always pick up the slack.

About 250,000 children — almost half of Connecticut students — receive free or reduced-price lunches during the school year, according to the state Department of Education.

That number drops to about 26,000 during the summer. The federal government spends about $54 million a year on school lunches in Connecticut, while the state chips in $2.3 million. Children who pay full price also help to subsidize those who don’t.

In Connecticut, one in five children younger than 12 is hungry or at risk of being hungry, according to the Connecticut Food Bank, which provides much of the food for the New London program.

Kids Cafes operate in big cities and small towns across the country. Some are mainly places for children to get a good meal.

Others, such as the New London Youth Organization’s cafe, offer much more. As many as 40 teens show up twice a week to play video games, eat and socialize. Some have started sailing lessons, and the coordinators plan to set up computers and offer tutoring during the school year.

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