A life of service: local nonprofit stares down childhood hunger

The Street Cafe menu (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The Street Cafe menu (photo by Melissa Fittro)

On a Friday afternoon a second grade girl digs through the school trash can looking for items to eat over the weekend when she surely won’t have anything else to fill her growling stomach.

Eating breakfast and lunch at school five days a week, the young girl and her two siblings don’t receive any food at home on the weekends.

Phoenix residents Lisa and Vince Scarpinato listened to their friend recount the touching story 10 years ago over dinner in their family dining room. It was an evening that changed their lives.

The young parents decided to start a program out of their home that has now turned into a nonprofit entity touching nearly 2,000 Valley children every week.

The Scarpinato’s left their corporate jobs offering security, insurance and steady pay, to help put an end to local childhood poverty.

As a means to help support that, the couple received a food truck from the Arizona Diamondbacks, before opening a restaurant in Scottsdale that provides funds to Kitchen on the Street.

Located in the heart of Scottsdale on the southeast corner of Shea Boulevard and Scottsdale Road, Street Café now serves breakfast and lunch with a small rotating menu. The café also serves handmade coffee drinks, provides catering, and offers take-home dinners to feed a whole family.

The café’s suggested prices — $5 for breakfast and $6 for dinner — goes towards funding the food-backpack program. Furthermore, the Scarpinato’s work with a Christian fellowship nearby to help provide a steady income and job experience to people trying to get back on their feet.

Currently, the program supplies 1,800 children throughout the Valley with food every weekend, and there are 600 more on a waiting list.

Based on a 2012 Feeding America study, nearly 1 in 3 children in Arizona live in poverty. In 2014, 15.5 million or approximately 21 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty. Arizona is reported to have 28.2 percent of children facing hunger.

Maricopa County hunger graphs provided by FeedingAmerica.org.

Maricopa County hunger graphs provided by FeedingAmerica.org.

10 years in the making

When Taylor Scarpinato was in junior high, her parents wanted to teach her the value of volunteering. However, because she was under the age of 16, they had a hard time finding places she would be allowed to donate her time.

“We as a family just started to say, ‘what could we do, what is there in the community?’” said Mrs. Scarpinato in a June 14 interview.

In September of 2006, some family friends came over for dinner. One of whom, recently started a new job as a charter school principal in Glendale.

“I just think I’m asking him a casual question when I say ‘hey, how’s your school year going?’” she said. “And he cried. Literally cried.”

This new principal recalled to their quaint dinner group the scene as he watched a young girl dig through the trash at school to take food home to eat over the weekend. The second grader was one of three children in a low-income family, who was provided breakfast and lunch at school but didn’t receive food on the weekends.

After a couple of hours of research that night, Mr. Scarpinato found that Phoenix had a hunger problem.

Starting with just grants and donations, the program continued growing out of the Scarpinato’s home. The food backpacks the family was providing doubled within the first two years.

Lisa and Vince Scarpinato, co-owners of Kitchen on the Street and Street Cafe. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Lisa and Vince Scarpinato, co-owners of Kitchen on the Street and Street Cafe. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Four years ago they asked the Diamondbacks for a food truck, and they got one. Two years ago, they started running the food truck full time, before outgrowing its kitchen space. That’s when Mr. Scarpinato decided to return to his culinary roots he had grown up with.

He left his position with USAA, and she left her job as an aviation claims adjuster, to put 100 percent of their effort into Kitchen on the Street.

Now partnered with 28 schools, the program bags up food and delivers it to the children. Each bag provides six meals and four snacks.

The additional food is helping the children’s performance in school also.

“What we found is that their reading scores go up by 12 percent and their math scores increase by 23 percent, they attend school more regularly and they are less of a distraction in the classroom,” said Mrs. Scarpinato.

Kitchen on the Street now is partially funded by Street Café, a diner located within a large strip mall. The businesses and retailers surrounding it varies from a large auction house, to other eateries and small businesses.

“Every time somebody eats here, we try to price it so that a child is fed,” said Mr. Scarpinato.

“The theory was that as you eat at another place in the area, you normally spend about $10 in the area. If ours is $5, maybe you might donate an extra $5.”

The café also doesn’t have a tip jar — it has a jar to donate to children. They pay their employees a wage that they are not dependent upon tips, said Mr. Scarpinato.

The menu is always changing and they strive to provide the freshest products.

The kitchen at Street Cafe (photo by Melissa Fittro)

The kitchen at Street Cafe (photo by Melissa Fittro)

“We don’t have a walk-in refrigerator or walk-in freezer. We don’t have that kind of storage,” he said. “You have a choice of about 10 or 11 items up there, but you can guarantee that every one of them is fresh.”

The eatery also offers daily specials, such as a half or full pan of pasta that parents can pick up on their way home to use for dinner.

The couple is using every avenue they can to make profits to provide more food to more children. Their waiting list of 600 children wanting to use the backpack program keeps them going, said Mrs. Scarpinato.

“There are kids out there and we know that need to be fed. So when we lay down at night, we think about them. That’s tough.”

Kitchen on the Street takes the extra step to do everything possible, said Mr. Scarpinato.

While there are several entities that provide similar services, this one doesn’t cap the amount of students it will feed per school. It also provides children with food that they can make and eat themselves.

Instead of giving a six-year-old a can of tuna and ramen noodles, Kitchen on the Street provides food with shelf-stable food with nutritional value.

“First of all they can’t open a can, second they can’t boil water and third, there should be some nutritional value,” said Mr. Scarpinato.

“We’ve heard stories where some of these kids take this food home and have to hide it under their bed, because they live in situations where that’s a commodity so ‘I can get more — of whatever.’”

Kitchen on the Street also works with schools and businesses to host food drives and provide Family Food Pantries — an option for families with multiple young children who need food.

Any schools wishing to partner with Kitchen on the Street may apply at Kitchenonthestreet.org. For more information on the Street Café visit http://www.streetcafeaz.com.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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