The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, the L.H. Bluford Branch had an impromptu Turkey Day feast. “It was crazy. Kids just kept coming in droves,” remembers Mary Olive Thompson, assistant branch manager and children’s librarian at Bluford. “It really felt like Thanksgiving.”
Thompson isn’t sure why a whopping 55 kids turned up to eat the rather un-Thanksgiving-y meal of chef salads that day at Bluford. She’s just glad they came – and that they keep coming.
Every Monday through Thursday at the Bluford and Southeast Branches and every Monday through Wednesday at Central, Kids Café is open for business.
A national program offered locally by Harvesters Community Food Network  in partnership with agencies (including the Kansas City Public Library) that provide services to disadvantaged kids and teens after school and during the summer, Kids Café serves wholesome and free food to all kids under the age of 19.
During an average Kids Café at Bluford, 30 to 35 kids turn up to eat a healthy, Harvesters-provided meal and engage in activities such as socializing, listening to a story, watching a movie, and playing games. The program stresses the importance of nutrition and basic food preparation skills, the eradication of hunger, and, at the Library, at least, the value of literacy.
The librarians at Central Youth Services have also partnered with staff from the H&R Block Business & Career Center to present some information on financial health for teens in conjunction with Kid’s Café.
On a recent Wednesday at the Central Library, around 20 kids ate meals while Children’s Librarian Clare Hollander read a story; afterwards, a few burned off calories by taking on each other and Children’s Librarian Clare Hollander in games of Dance Dance Revolution. Others read or played chess.
“If there’s food, I’m there,” said Kids Café regular Tyrone, 17.
“It’s kids of all different ages, all from the same neighborhood, coming together and eating and sharing in the same room. That’s why I love it,” Thompson says.
Thompson has one colleague in particular to thank for the privilege of providing healthy, free meals to kids: Gabi Otto.
The go-to person for teen services at the Southeast Branch, Otto recognized the need to be able to serve food to her younger customers several years ago. Because without snacks on hand, she explains, it’s a lot harder to get kids and teens into the Library after school. At the same time, it can be expensive to feed several dozen mouths a day.
When a friend told Otto about Harvesters two years ago, she saw the opportunity to fulfill her vision of providing healthy snacks while encouraging participation in programs. Kids Café and Harvesters have been providing food to Southeast ever since. This past fall, Thompson brought it to Bluford, and Teen Librarian Kim Patton paved the way for it to come to Central.
“The food is really important because it brings kids into the Library and provides a safe place for them to socialize,” Otto says. “And it gives me a chance to develop relationships with all of them.”
Indeed, for Otto and her fellow Kids Café maitre d’s – Thompson at Bluford and Hollander and Wick Thomas at Central – this program provides a way of building a lasting connection between kids and the Library.
“One day, when they get to be adults, they’ll look back and appreciate this and have positive thoughts about the Library,” Otto says.
“And, I don’t know, maybe they’ll think of me – the lady who brought the German chocolate,” she says with a laugh.
Kids Café at the Kansas City Public Library
Southeast Branch:  Mon. - Thurs., 3 to 4 p.m.
L.H. Bluford Branch : Mon - Thurs., 4 to 5 p.m.
Central Library : Mon. - Wed., 5 to 6 p.m.
-- Jason Harper