Waterville Maine is a small town on the Kennebec River. About 16,000 people live there and by Maine standards they are young. See Maine's got the oldest population in the country and Waterville's per capita elderly population is lower than the state average. These young people have young people and about 20% of those kids are living under the poverty level. One thing about poor kids - especially the children of the working poor - they are usually pretty hungry by the end of the day.
Poverty is directly related to food insecurity, and food insecurity among children - according to Feeding America - is responsible for "health problems, education problems, and workforce and job readiness problems." Their report on hunger's negative effects on society can be read at their website.
Children that go home to houses with little or no food in the cupboard often have a working parent that is absent part of the time as well. 36% of the families Feeding America serves has at least one working family member.
The children in Waterville are no more immune to the negative effects of poverty, food insecurity and work related absentee parenting than kids anywhere else might be. But they do have a remedy many other communities lack. They have the Alfond Youth Center's Kids' Kitchen. Every child who goes to the youth center after school is given a hearty healthy meal: often the last one the child will eat that day.
In 2002 - while working as a radio broadcaster in the Waterville area - I was invited to dine at the Kids Kitchen and meet the founder. I drove in a blinding blizzard during my morning show to have breakfast at the kitchen with a feisty retired nurse who had several years before decided to feed every hungry kid she came in contact with while volunteering at the Waterville Boys and Girls Club. Her name was Eva Grover.
I expected to have a relatively humdrum broadcast that morning because blizzards tend to slow things down for most businesses. The exact opposite was the case for the Alfond Youth Center which had combined the local YMCA with the Boys and Girls Club and was teaming with children whose schools had been closed by the storm. When school is cancelled, working parents still go to work. Consequently, the youth center was overflowing.
Grover, a tiny little white haired woman, was feverishly preparing meals for about sixty children. Another five little old ladies were serving the children their breakfast.
I sat at a table with a number of children and patiently waited my turn to speak with the kitchen's founder. While I waited I interviewed the children and marveled at the quiet orderly way in which the operation ran. One of the grandmotherly waitresses asked a little boy next to me what he wanted for breakfast. He answered, "Scrambled eggs." The woman didn't budge. An older, more experienced patron - a girl about twelve - leaned down to her young table mate and whispered, "You have to say please or they won't move." The little boy corrected himself, "Scrambled eggs please." And off his waitress went to fulfill his request.
When Grover had a minute to sit down after the children has run off to various activities in the center, she told me that their goal wasn't just to feed the children a meal that one might expect to get at home, it was to mirror all the lessons they would have learned at a meal at home. Proper etiquette and manners were as important to economically disadvantaged children as they are to any child.
I asked Grover how she got involved with the operation in the first place. She explained, "it started when I volunteered at the Boys and Girls Club. I was a retired nurse and I was bored sitting at home. The kids got off the bus and some of the little ones said that they were hungry. But there was no food for them." Grover went to the store and bought the fixings for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She fed the children that were there that day and planned to do the same the next afternoon. "But," Grover went on, "the next day there were twice as many kids waiting for me. I knew then that an awful lot of these children were hungry."
Within a few years and with the help of benefactors Harold and Bibby Alfond, what started as Grover's personal gift of sandwich makings for a dozen hungry kids grew to 40,000 meals per year in a newly built facility.
In 2002 Eva Grover was inducted into the Alfond Youth Center Hall of Fame. She later retired from her second and favorite profession, cooking for the poorest kids in the community. But her legacy and her kitchen remained.
Eva Grover died Friday. Thousands of children who felt her love will miss her. Thousands more poor kids in the Waterville area who never met and will never know Grover will benefit from her love nonetheless.