Interview with Lisa Scarpinato, CEO of “Kitchen on the Street”

I first learned of Lisa Scarpinato from my friend Paula Derrow, features editor at SELF magazine.  SELF had just awarded Lisa one of its “Women Doing Good” awards for starting, along with her husband, a nonprofit organization called Kitchen on the Street to help combat childhood hunger in their home state of Arizona.  Because many children who rely on school breakfast and lunch live in food-insecure homes, KOS provides them with Bags of Hope, food-filled bags to get them through the weekend.

Lisa’s story is truly inspiring, and I’m pleased to be able to present my interview with her here:

TLT:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to start Kitchen on the Street?

LS:  About four years ago my family (husband, daughter and I) were feeling like we had more time and talent to give to our community, and we felt like there must be a group that was not being served.  We are people of faith, so we were praying about this and looking into community needs.  One night, our friends Dennis and Rhonda were over for dinner. Dennis was a school administrator (he has since passed away) so I asked him how the school year was going.  Dennis began to describe a little girl in an African robe that he watched go around the cafeteria after all the kids were gone; collecting food, wrapping it in napkins and placing it in her pockets!  When he asked her about it, she willingly gave the food back and explained that her family had just moved here, was trying to learn the language and her parents were trying to get jobs – but until then, she and her sister and brother had no food except what they got at school.  At that moment, my eyes locked with my husband’s and we knew this was what we were looking for.  That night we went online and started the 501(c)(3) paperwork.

TLT:  How many children does KOS currently serve?

LS:  We have ten partner schools that distribute about 300 Bags of Hope per week; we also provide Bags of Hope to a women’s shelter whenever we have additional money or resources.

TLT:  Were you surprised by the degree of childhood hunger in your own community?

LS:  I was shocked!  As I listened to Dennis describe this little girl and her situation, I mentally re-visited the halls of my grade school.  I wondered if there were children walking the same halls I walked, that were suffering from this food insecurity, too.  As it turns out, there were, and that was the first school we partnered with.

TLT:  Are others surprised as well?

LS:  “Shock and awe” is the most common reaction we get when we share our cause with people.  30,000 children die a day (worldwide) from hunger and curable diseases.  NO ONE wants to believe any children suffer from food insecurity in America – let alone in their city.  But the reality is that 1 in 4 children in Arizona goes hungry on a regular basis.  Nearly 400,000 children receive breakfast and/or lunch at low or no cost.  Arizona just became the SECOND poorest state in the nation!  Sadly, the children are suffering, and it doesn’t stop with food.  You cannot learn if you have not eaten.  Education suffers when children don’t get proper food and nutrition.

TLT:  Tell us about your Bags of Hope – what’s in them and where does the food come from?

LT:  A Bag of Hope has five main meals — individually portioned, pre-cooked, child-safe entrees that can be eaten “as is” or heated if a child has access to a stove or microwave.  (Many of them don’t, so it is very important to provide “as is/where is” type foods).  Each bag also includes two breakfast bars, applesauce, pudding, fruit snacks, pretzels, granola bars and, whenever possible, juice or water.  These items provide 50 grams of protein and 20 grams of fiber.

We purchase main meals directly from the manufacturer, in bulk (to keep the cost down); the remaining items come from Sam’s Club.  We are unlike most backpack programs in that we purchase (as opposed to relying on whatever is donated) the specific items for Bags of Hope; this ensures that there is consistency in the nutrition provided by each bag. (Many organizations provide a snack bag of primarily chips, cookies and candy.)

TLT:  What sorts of improvements have you seen since starting KOS in terms of test scores, attendance, etc.?

LS:  Our largest school (100 students per week) increased two levels in annual testing, from underperforming to over-performing!  All our schools report better attendance in students once they join the program, and many teachers indicate better overall behavior in the classroom as well.

TLT: Some people feel that obesity and hunger must be mutually exclusive.  Do you find that to be true?

LS:  Studies show that children who suffer food insecurity are much more likely to experience obesity later in life, most likely due to the scarcity mentality.  That is, when they are presented with food, they eat as much as their bodies can physically handle for fear of not having access to food again for long periods of time.

While obesity remains one of America’s most dangerous issues, research indicates that it is also an issue in the lives of people struggling with food insecurity.  Many times the only affordable food available to them lacks the nutrients they need, and it is packaged in portions that are not healthy for consumption in one sitting.  In an effort to combat this, Kitchen on the Street hosts monthly food distributions wherein a local food bank provides fresh food and KOS provides the volunteers to carry out the event.

TLT:  Does KOS have plans to expand in the future?

KOS started in our kitchen filling Bags of Hope, then it moved to our back yard and finally to a room at a partner school. This move allowed us to expand to hosting fresh food distributions in partnership with a local food bank, and it allowed us to start a small food bank to provide Emergency Food Boxes to the community, as well as to assist our partner schools in establishing and maintaining food banks and clothing closets in their schools.  We have seen much growth in four short years. But as long as there is childhood hunger, we hope to expand.  We were recently featured in SELF magazine (September issue) and on the Today Show; these opportunities allowed us to share our cause.  Since then, we have received numerous requests from folks in other states wanting KOS to help them feed their hungry children; we want to share our experiences and knowledge with anyone willing to step out on the ledge and dive into this issue plaguing America’s children.  We are currently working on a food rescue program, as an incredible amount of food gets thrown away each year in the US.  We know it can be preserved to meet the need of the most hungry in our communities

TLT:  What else would you like Lunch Tray readers to know about KOS?  Can they contribute to your organization?

  • Hungry children suffer two to four times as many individual health problems as low-income children whose families do not experience food shortages.
  • Food insecurity affects academic performance. Hungry children lag behind their peers and learn less.
  • Hungry children are more likely to be absent from school, be hyperactive; behave poorly; be held back; score poorly on tests; and be placed in special education.

As a person invested in the next generation of Americans, we ask for your partnership in sponsoring children.  Just $25 a month feeds a child outside of school, has the power the improve health, increase self-esteem and provide a foundation for education.

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Many thanks to Lisa for visiting The Lunch Tray.  I’m blown away by her initiative and all that she’s been able to accomplish.

As I’ve often said on TLT, when we debate the minutiae of school food reform it’s easy to forget that, for some children, school food is the only food they get in the course of a day.  To become a Kitchen on the Street “Partner in Hope,” visit the KOS website to make a Pay Pal contribution.


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