Eschewing tech for creative learning, South End kids to see source of food firsthand

Two boys pour ingredients into a bowl

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Careful bakers: Two boys pour ingredients into a bowl to make brownies last week at the South End Children’s Café in Albany.

ALTAMONT — City kids are coming to the country as the South End Children’s Café visits the Altamont Fair.

Since Tracie Killar opened the café in November 2015, she said this week, “We’ve served 30,000 free, healthy dinners.”

“I love the South End,” said Killar. “My family lived here when I was a child … When I was a child, people helped our family.”

Killar graduated from Albany High School and The College of Saint Rose, then worked in not-for-profits with children and families. Her husband is an addiction counselor. “Between the two of us, we have six children, several with special needs,” Killar said. “In 2014, we sat down with our two kids still at home to come up with this.”

She went on, “The South End is a food desert, there is no affordable healthy food here … SpaghettiOs, white bread, and mac-and-cheese,” she said naming typical fare for children, “are not fine … Food cooked from scratch is healthier. We wanted an alternative — a lot of greens, a lot of proteins, no juice, no soda, no processed foods.”

Killar cited studies that show students who are “food insecure” — who have to worry where the next meal is coming from — don’t do as well in school; they can’t focus on learning when they are hungry.

She also cited research that shows kids who share meals with their families do better in school and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems.

“Many of our kids have come here every day for five years,” said Killar. Families are welcome to join their kids for a meal. The chef also puts together meals-to-go that families can take home with them when they pick up their kids at 5:30 p.m. on weeknights.

The café’s chef, Floyd Scott, paid for by a local lobbyist, is helped in the kitchen by volunteers. Scott prepares meals in compliance with Albany County Health Department regulations, Killar noted.

Volunteers come from all over the county, Killar said, and include high school as well as college students. Besides volunteering in the kitchen, they also help the kids with homework after school and with other activities.

“We’re tech-free and proud of it,” said Killar. “We have the kids for such a short time — from 3 to 5:30 on school days —  it makes no sense to have them staring at screens instead of each other.”

The kids play board games, do arts and crafts, learn yoga, and take dance lessons.

“We want them to communicate, and problem-solve, and be creative,’ said Killar.

In the summer, the South End Café kids take a series of field trips, including one to the Altamont Fair.

“About a quarter of our kids are homeless,” said Killar. “We have families that have to pick and choose between groceries and keeping the heat on.

“In the summer, we try to raise money for field trips … We try to figure out ways for kids to make memories..”

The Albany County Sheriff’s Office has paid for the kids’ tickets to the Altamont Fair for the past two years, Killar said.

“They love the rides, of course, but also the animals,” she said.

She mentioned road trips or vacations that wealthier city residents take where parents might look out the car window and point out to their children, “See the cows.”

“Many of our parents don’t have transportation,” said Killar, so the visit to the Altamont Fair can be the first time a child has seen a cow or a horse or a goat or a sheep.

“We love the fair,” said Killar. “The kids love being outside.”


“Simple giving”

Christina Grippin, an intern since April at the Altamont Fair, has been involved in coordinating and publicizing this year’s visit of the South End kids to the fair. Once she finishes her internship, Grippin will have earned her bachelor’s degree from Morrisville State in agricultural business.

She finished her degree early — Grippin is just 20 — because of the college-level courses she took at Berne-Knox-Westerlo. Her twin brother, Danny, works at the fair, too, while their sister is studying to be an accountant.

Grippin has agriculture in her blood; her family lives on Mountain Winds Farm in the Helderbergs where her father runs a sugar bush and sells maple syrup.

Grippin is familiar with the South End of Albany. “My mom and I go to Capital City Rescue Mission a lot,” she said. “It’s a homeless shelter. We go to Goodwill and get blankets and wash them and bring them there. We have chickens so we bring eggs there … The people there are very nice. They always pull the door open for you. They are really sweet to us. They always offer to help us carry the things we bring.”

The South End Café kids will be at the fair on opening day, Tuesday, Aug. 13. Grippin has encouraged them to enter the crafts and food competitions.

Announcing the visit, Grippin wrote in a release that the South End children “will have the chance to come to the fair and learn about agriculture and where their food comes from.

“Each animal barn has farmers who are excited and willing to educate these children on each animal and what it means to be a farmer and create healthy food,” she wrote. “While at the fair, they will be able to see poultry and rabbit shows, 4-H presentations, antique farm equipment demonstrations … .”

Grippin hopes to greet the kids on their arrival. After that, Grippin said, “They’ll go on the rides, see the animals, talk to farmers … They’ll be able to do their own thing.”

Kellar said the café is always looking for more volunteers. “They can call or text me at 518-275-8890. Anything they bring to the table will be wonderful,” she said.

Killar stressed that a big time commitment isn’t needed to contribute. “Someone crochets with the kids once a month,” she said. “Maybe there are jugglers or sculptors, or someone who can tell jokes. The kids love to meet new people.

“We always love to have retired teachers. They help the kids with homework.” Other volunteers “play with the kids or do arts and crafts,” she said.

Killar concluded, “We forget how much we get from giving to each other — simple giving.”

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.