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Free Meals and Skills for Kids at the J Café 

click to enlarge J Café staffers Louisa Hunsucker and Ian Rowley with a handful of young diners

Photo by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

J Café staffers Louisa Hunsucker and Ian Rowley with a handful of young diners

At one end of the J Café, a little girl in a pink skirt perches on the arm of an overstuffed chair and scrapes her teeth on the skin of a green apple. At the other end, a couple of kids are using tongs to add fresh black cherries and watermelon wedges on their paper plates beside scoops of chicken fajita filling, beans, brown rice and folded whole wheat tortillas.

The newly opened café in the Jefferson Community Center seats around 25 at its window counter and wooden four-top tables. And during the summer, when vital school lunch service isn't available, it serves freshly made free lunches to kids 18 and under Monday through Thursday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. The community center has been feeding local kids free meals for a few years, including a to-go program during the pandemic. The cheery little dining room with its robin's eggshell blue walls takes that mission a step further, folding in job training and serving as a gathering space.

Morgen Whitesul, who facilitates group-focused child activities at the center, scoops a few of her Spider-Man-suited toddler's abandoned broccoli florets onto her plate. "I feel like I've eaten my body weight in broccoli," she says with a laugh. Other vegetables are more popular with little ones, "and the cut-up fruit is always a hit." The meals, provided with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, must include a protein and meat alternative, a vegetable, a grain and a fruit, according to the program guidelines. Today's chicken fajitas fit the bill and went over well, if the shaggy-haired kid licking his fork at the next table is any indication.

Chef Chelsea Sterling heads the kitchen, but on Thursday it was Louisa Hunsucker managing the meals with 18-year-old intern Ian Rowley.

Rowley, explains Jefferson Community Center coordinator Sadhbh Flynn, is a paid intern and a graduate of the Jefferson Youth Culinary Arts Program, which partners with Alder Grove Charter School's Career Technology Education program. Under Sterling's tutelage, students taking culinary classes work at the Jefferson's kitchen, applying the skills they've learned while earning class credit.

"We learned how to do different French techniques, sauces, all kinds of pasta," says Rowley, who wears black framed glasses and a downy buzz cut. He clocks in at 9:30 a.m. to start lunch prep and totals 20 hours a week. "I like the people here," he says. Unlike working shifts at a typical fast-food joint, he says, "We actually prepare most food from scratch and I just find that more fun." He thinks he's found his calling, too, and will start at College of the Redwoods in the fall, hoping to earn an associate's degree in business before heading to the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute.

Flynn nudges him to talk about his "secret sauce" that won him an award at a burger competition hosted by the OCCI.

He gives a small shrug and says he beat out some 14 competitors. But on the sauce's ingredients, he is mum.

Hunsucker, who landed in the Jefferson Community Center kitchen after completing a job training program working construction at a hostel being built in Eureka, sees a lot of value in the student training there. She says they learn practical skills like prep, proper storage and temperature guidelines and following rules and procedures to earn food handling and alcohol service certificates. "I think if [Ian] were to want to move on ... he's very hirable. He's very knowledgeable about the kitchen," she says.

Kids coming up to the counter get a big smile from Hunsucker, who says she prefers kitchen work and enjoys getting to know the regulars among the 10 to 15 kids they serve per day. "Some of them are hungry," she says, adding she sometimes wishes she could send them home with more food.

While the meals can serve a vital need for families grappling with food insecurity, the space itself offers respite, too. "There's this magical place where I can help the community and bring my kids. ... "It's this hidden gem," says Whitesul of the Jefferson Community Center. The group activities she runs offer a place for kids to be kids, "to chat and hang out, to just create and be wild," she says, "a cool meeting place" for both children and their sometimes isolated and/or overwhelmed parents and caretakers.

While the lunches are just for kids, the J Café also has morning hours Monday through Thursday when anyone can come in and buy coffee and espresso drinks, as well as whatever muffin or pastry is on offer that day. The prices cover the cost of ingredients and any excess goes back into the community center, says Flynn, who adds there's free produce from the garden on Saturdays, too.

"People love the community feel of it," says Flynn. "It's just a nice little vibe in here."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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