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Needy kids get a taste of hope

Eight-year-old Darnisha Straughter carefully said a prayer, then attacked her spaghetti.

She lifted her loaded plastic fork high over her head and let the noodles and meat sauce slide into her mouth and over her clothes, her chair and elsewhere.

"I got it in my nose," she said, laughing.

Thus opened the Tampa Bay Kids Cafe.

Kids Cafe is a national program to feed children who don't get enough nutrition at home. Wednesday's opening at the Audley Evans Youth Center in Tampa brought hot dinners to Darnisha and about 70 other children from the College Hill and Ponce de Leon public housing communities.

Organizers hope to make the dinners a regular weekday event this summer at the Audley Evans Center and the day care center in Riverview Terrace. But first they need a few things: money, volunteers and equipment.

"Everything's got to be in place before we start," said Ashley Thomas, Kids Cafe coordinator for the Divine Providence Food Bank in Tampa.

Wednesday's opening was staffed by Divine Providence volunteers and financed from a $10,000 donation from Publix and Pillsbury, enough to keep the program operating for about a year.

But Thomas said the program needs another $10,000, many more volunteers and the equipment necessary to bring the Audley Evans kitchen up to commercial standards before the Kids Cafe can open again.

The first Kids Cafe began at the food bank in Savannah, Ga., in 1993, after two boys were caught stealing food from a neighborhood community center because they were hungry. More than 30 communities now offer the program as part of the Second Harvest Network, a Chicago-based network of food banks.

Staff members of the Ponce de Leon Boys and Girls Clubs found children for Wednesday's opening from among club regulars. They chose the ones who seem hungry from time to time and others they have sometimes fed from their own pockets.

"We basically looked at kids who probably need it," said Todd Cole, director of the Ponce de Leon Boys and Girls Clubs.

Though hungry, some couldn't resist trying to squeeze the Pillsbury dough boy as they filed into their places on the long tables and waited for volunteers to serve them.