PHOTO/DAVID ROBERT: Cyndi Wallis waits on customers at Great Full Gardens restaurant in Reno.

Most folks take for granted their ability to sit in a nice restaurant, order tasty fare from a menu, and enjoy the pleasure of being served.

But for families caught between rising food costs and stagnant incomes, dining out can be outside their means. A local pilot program is helping such families make the dining-out experience less rare—in a way that protects the dignity of recipients.

The program, called The Third Meal, combines computer technology with caring volunteers and local restaurants. Its name refers to dinner, the meal that children from low-income families who are enrolled in school breakfast and lunch programs often don’t get at home. The theme of the program is “dining with dignity.”

“A special part of the experience is enjoying it with family,” said Ray Roske, founder of The Third Meal. “We want families to feel that people care, that kids in need are valued.”

The three interlocking pieces of the program include administering a website and donation site, recruiting families who want to participate, and connecting them with local restaurants willing to match donors’ contributions. The families who use the program can’t be identified as people in need of charity.

“There is no way to distinguish between a Third Meal family or a patron with a purchased gift card,” said Cyndi Wallis, co-owner of Great Full Gardens restaurant, which participates in The Third Meal and matches donations.

A brainstorm in Denver

Roske wanted to make it as easy for a family to walk into a restaurant and order a meal paid for by donations as it is for people to order an Uber or Lyft ride. He works for Oracle in Denver and reached out to his friend, Steve Johnson, a minister in Portland, Ore., for help in planning the program. The pair financed the startup with $5,000 made by selling motorcycles. Their friend Robert Galofre of Atlanta designed the website at cost.

To find families who could benefit from their plan, Roske and Johnson in 2021 turned to B.J. Foster, program manager for Communities in Schools in Western Nevada. That nonprofit organization was founded by Elaine Wynn, the former wife of Las Vegas developer Steve Wynn. The group operates in Tier 1 (underachieving) schools statewide, including 13 in the Washoe County School District. Its mission is to connect students with support to help them learn, advance and graduate.

Today, The Third Meal serves 23 Washoe County students in six families, up from 17 last year. Foster distributes $600 a month through the website, accessible to the enrolled students and families. The program also monitors the progress of the students and reports that participants have shown better attendance and higher grades, especially in math.

Foster sees the program’s impact first-hand. “I saw the light in their eyes come on. They are staying awake in class,”  he said.

Said Johnson: “B.J. knows all the kids. That makes it very personal. The advocates do all the work, and I want them to be the heroes.”

A ‘how-to’ course for dining out

To prepare the families for their dining experience, Foster gives them some tips, including a budget of what they can spend. “I sit down and go through the menus so they won’t freak out at the prices,” she said. She encourages the youngsters to “try one thing at a time on the menu.”

Some participants may have a “poverty mindset,” she said, and feel out of place while dining out.

“Families can be embarrassed,” she said, or worry that the restaurant won’t let them in, or that they can’t find transportation to get there. “I take them in with me and have them order. That gives them peace of mind.”

When it’s time to pay, the restaurant server scans a QR code on the family’s smart phone. No personal information such as student names are revealed to the server.

“We treat everyone equally, with honor and respect,” said Juli Scala, Great Full Gardens’ co-owner and president.

Great Full Gardens is known for its community outreach. Scala said the eatery provided to-go meals for hospital staff and residents of Eddy House, a shelter for young people, during the pandemic. It partnered with other restaurants and One World Kitchen to feed firefighters, other frontline workers and evacuees during a wildfire at Lake Tahoe in 2021. In partnership with RootEd, a nonprofit organization, the restaurant’s owners have donated modular greenhouses to local schools to teach students where their food comes from. In 2019, Great Full Gardens became the first restaurant in Nevada to win a Restaurant Neighbor Award from the National Restaurant Association.

It’s important to give back, Scala said. “We have an affinity for kids and good nutrition.”

More partners needed

Now that the proof-of-concept phase was successful, Roske plans to scale up the Reno pilot program, to include more restaurants and families in Denver and Portland, and expand to other cities. He hopes to utilize his experience at Oracle, where he finds solutions to business problems, recruits partners and brings them together to demonstrate the computer company’s innovations.

Criteria for restaurant partners include use of point-of-sale software, social awareness, healthy food and a community-oriented focus, he said.

“I know a lot of restaurant owners, and they each give in their own way,” Scala said. “This is a wonderful cause, and it makes a big difference. It’s beautiful to hear the results, and it warms our hearts.”

The computer part of the program is inexpensive, since there are no employees to pay, Roske said. “We boast that we spend less than $100—$89—per month on maintaining the website.” 

Said Johnson: “Ninety-nine percent of donations feed kids. I think there are potential donors who, if they knew a kid was hungry and they could feed that kid, would donate.”

Donations have come from Oracle, Intel, Nikon, Dell, State Farm, Adobe and other companies, and from individual donors who contribute via the website.

The school-based coordinators look for families who are not transient and have committed to improving their children’s well-being and education. The bottom line, Johnson said, is to “make life more stable for people climbing out of poverty.”

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