On a snowy evening in late January, Chef Denise Perry of Copper Pot Cooking Studio was busy ladling plump meatballs onto swirls of freshly made spaghetti while containers of crisp salad and fudge brownies waited to be packed and made ready for pickup. Down the street at Maldaner's Restaurant, Chef Michael Higgins had steaming containers of Pennsylvania Dutch turkey pot pie ready alongside crunchy celery and apple salads. It was a busy night for the restaurants and volunteers who helped to make Compass for Kids' first-ever Meals that Matter event a success, even in stormy winter weather.
Compass for Kids has been supporting and empowering underserved elementary-aged kids in Springfield for a decade. In the days before remote learning and Zoom class, CFK provided after-school tutoring, fun activities and a hot meal during the school year for children at sites located throughout District 186, as well as summer camp programs. The organization quickly pivoted when lockdown hit, making the shift to remote programming and delivering supplies, food and books to participating kiddos each week. Now, in collaboration with other local organizations and businesses, they have developed a program that connects Compass families with locally sourced meals from some of Springfield's most beloved restaurants. The meals, purchased with funds donated to Compass, are free to participating families.
"This was initially an attempt to recreate one of our favorite components of our in-person Compass programs in a remote format," said Molly Berendt, CFK executive director. "But because there were so many treasured local restaurants and small farmers that have been struggling during the pandemic, we realized that this was a way to support our families and give them a family meal that they were able to share around their own table, while at the same time supporting small businesses in our community."
“Before the pandemic we used to enjoy a beautiful family- style meal and it was really one of the most cherished components of our programming,” said Linda Reid, Director of Education and Impact with CFK. Shelly Kinner, Club Compass Program Manager, had the initial idea to provide monthly meals to families. “We wanted to continue to provide this type of connection even in the midst of lockdown,” said Reid. “I'm also involved with Slow Food Springfield, and when I threw out the idea of involving them and utilizing restaurants who have received their Snail of Approval recognition everybody jumped on it immediately. I was thinking about the importance of the heart of the meal, that it was not just about food, but rather filling the heart and soul of our community. ”
Slow Food is an international, grass-roots organization that works to preserve local culinary traditions and foster passion not just for food, but for the heritage and environment from which it comes. Springfield's local chapter was founded in 2006 and has been supporting small farmers and creating delicious opportunities for connection ever since. In pre-pandemic days they sponsored school gardens, farm tours, panel discussions, dinners and an annual film festival, among other activities. Springfield's local chapter recognizes local eateries, producers and artisans who support local, sustainable food production with Slow Food's Snail of Approval Award, an internationally recognized symbol for delicious and ethical cuisine.
SFS chapter president Alana Reynolds said that a collaboration with CFK was already in the works, but the crisis of the pandemic accelerated the partnership. "Where SFS came in with the Meals that Matter program was in working with these restaurants that have been recognized for sourcing local ingredients and cooking from scratch. These chefs have powerful connections to local cuisines and preexisting relationships with farmers, and the recipes they create are made with a lot of love."
Not only are the meals created by these local chefs delicious, their from-scratch recipes are deeply nourishing and made with fresh-grown produce (yes, even in Illinois in January) from MoonGirl Farms in Pleasant Plains, PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta and lean beef, chicken and pork from 4Lees Farm in Virginia and Triple S Farms in Stewardson.
In addition to the offerings from Maldaner's and Copper Pot Cooking Studio, Compass families were able to choose from a total of five menu options, including cheeseburger beef stroganoff with glazed carrots and garlic bread from Engrained, barbecued pork mac and cheese bowl with fresh bread from Long Nine Junction, or baked chicken, rosemary potatoes and garlicky swiss chard from The Sangamo Club.
"We've done food programs for years, and we know that choice is very important in order to empower our children, so we definitely wanted to incorporate that into the Meals that Matter Program," Berendt said. Reid explained, "We also included an ingredient list with each menu for the kids to analyze and help empower them to be involved in choosing which restaurant they'd like to order from. During our regular weekly Club Compass meetings there's a social- emotional learning component. Part of that is helping kids learn to make responsible choices. Encouraging the kids to analyze the ingredients on the menu and letting them help decide what they want to order for their family is an important part of that."
The first pickup event was a success in spite of inclement weather, and Berendt says the organization hopes to make Meals that Matter last in the long term, at least throughout the pandemic. "Our goal from the beginning was to provide meals January through May and some of that funding has been provided through Kiwanis and Rotary Club South, but otherwise it's been all individual donations. We've also applied for City of Springfield Community Development Block Grant funding and if that comes though then we'd love to expand the program and perhaps open this up to partnering with some other youth-focused organizations. We've had amazing support from Capitol Radio Group in getting the word out, and the restaurants have been promoting it as well."
Folks interested in supporting Springfield area families, restaurants and small farmers all in one place can find more information about the Meals that Matter Program on Compass for Kids' website https://www.compass4kids.org/mealsthatmatter/.