Just a few years ago, teens from the Rock Island County Extension 4-H program found inspiration when they served a free meal at the county’s Township Hall.
As Maya Chavez recalls, tacos were the main course, and when they began to run out, the youths were asked by the guests to hand out the ingredients, such as tomatoes and onions. "It was heart-breaking," she said. "They kept coming back for more and we thought, 'this is how hungry people are.'"
What has evolved from that experience is the 4-H Teen Hunger Ambassadors, a success story that has found acclaim in Illinois and Missouri and on the national stage in Washington, D.C.
Clare VanSpeybroeck remembers an initial exercise on the organization's focus: "We had a game where we got into three groups, named first-, second- and third-class. The first-class group got all the food and drink they wanted, and didn’t have to do anything," she said.
"I was in the second-class group, and we had to walk twice around the parking lot and got a little bit of clean water. The third-class group had to walk four times around the parking lot, and got 'dirty' water (actually cocoa water).
"That really put it in perspective, kind of Third World," said VanSpeybroeck, 16, and a sophomore at Alleman High School, Rock Island.
The teens decided they wanted to make a difference with hunger in Milan, home to the Rock Island County Extension Service offices. The Milan community did not offer a similar program, so the project fills a void.
"At our first event, we made the food, announced the free meal and invited the community to come," Diane Baker said. Baker is 4-H youth development manager for the Extension Service.
The youths brainstorm different meals they'd like to serve each month, and then look at what food donations are on hand, Baker said. Food items are also purchased at River Bend Foodbank, Davenport. "That helps to stretch our food dollars longer. We can do more meals that way."
The teens make the meals after school on a Wednesday night, and serve everyone who walks through the door from 4:30-5:30 p.m. on the next Thursday. The meal is served once a month at the Extension office, 321 W. 2nd St., Milan.
On a recent Wednesday, teens prepared baked chicken and rice casserole, tortellini, Caesar salad, and fruit crisps for dessert, featuring berry or peach fillings.
"Each meal is a little different," Baker said. The teens like to dress up the main dishes to make them more flavorful or nutritious, adding different seasonings, or vegetables.
"We've had rave reviews of the casseroles we've made," Baker said.
The biggest challenge is the flow of monetary support. The program is run off grant dollars, and Baker said it has had "good support" from the community.
Grants so far have come from Community Foundation of the Great River Bend, the Illinois 4-H Foundation and Deere & Co., Moline.
The Doris and Victor Day Foundation has supported a food packaging program. For that, the teens prepare rice-based or pasta-based meals and package them for delivery. "That helps to alleviate hunger," Baker said.
There are some 20 Teen Hunger Ambassadors in the program, and it is open to anyone who is interested, Baker said.