GIVING thanks

As most of us revel in post-Thanksgiving stupor, here’s a story to make you smile. This year JMU alum Alissa McLaughlin (’01) and friends raised money, collected turkeys and ingredients and provided Thanksgiving meals to more than 100 families in her hometown of Philadelphia. To Alissa, food is far more than sustenance. South Philly Review writer Bill Chenervert explains why and just what’s behind Alissa’s passion for her community…..

GIVING thanks

By Bill Chenevert, staff writer, South Philly Review 

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves.

Volunteers with the Small Fry program, including founder Alissa McLaughlin, front row, middle, pack bags full of turkeys, recipes and healthy ingredients for families to take home and cook themselves. Photo by Richard Barnes

Alissa McLaughlin, of the 2000 block of Pemberton Street, was volunteering with some children in her neighborhood, when she noticed a distinct lack of concentration in many of them with whom she was working. She asked the director of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 740 S. 17th St., why they seemed to struggle with behavior and focus, and the answer seems to have given her new purpose in life.

“He told me since most of the kids are on public assistance they were not eating over the weekends because they were provided school breakfast and lunch,” McLaughlin explained. “I figured if I taught the kids how to cook on Saturday and sent them home with supplies to practice the recipes, I could theoretically provide at least two healthy meals over the weekend.”

That was more three years ago, and it gave her the inspiration to start Small Fry, a program for 5- to 13-year-olds that focuses on nutrition and kitchen skills, aiming at them bringing home infectious energy and enthusiasm for making wholesome meals. And staying away from snack meals.

“The requirements are every meal has to be under 500 calories and all of the items in the recipe need to be on the food stamp-approved list so they are able to duplicate recipes at home,” the South of South resident said.

Her company, Radiant Matter, an event and logistics operation she founded five years ago, gave her the resources to start Small Fry with her own money (she admits to still figuring out nonprofit and IRS-exempt loose ends). She and her boyfriend have galvanized a strong group of volunteers and families and this past Saturday, they sent 110 kids home with turkeys, recipes and ingredients for side dishes.

“This weekend, we had 110 kids and we have 180 kids that are registered for Small Fry,” McLaughlin said, going on to describe the many things they didn’t see coming when it all got started: extreme camaraderie amongst families and volunteers, barricades of literacy and portion control and awareness of how rewarding it would be for those lending volunteer support. “The two main things are the kids need to eat, and we need to be there for these kids and be consistent.”

By showing kids how to make chicken nuggets that are baked, healthier versions of pizza, and “skinny” versions of Thanksgiving fix-ins like green bean casserole, stuffing, pie and mashed potatoes, McLaughlin has been emboldened to expand and continue Small Fry a little farther south and into subsidized housing communities.

“You can’t just fly in and fly out,” she noted. “Our community needs people that are going to walk alongside them. I’ve learned so much from my kids and their families that my life is 100 times better.”

They’re hopeful that a second location is up and running by January with an eye on Chew Recreation Center, 1800 Washington Ave.

Small Fry’s ambitions seem to grow as the program matures, too.

“We have also started couponing classes and budgeting classes for parents. We focus how to survive on one modest income” McLaughlin said, with her mom proving influential in the program’s founding and in leading lessons, too, showing parents “how to take one chicken and turn it into four meals for five people.”

As for a new space, McLaughlin and her volunteers plan on working with Community Center site’s directly because “sometimes you just kind of forge ahead.”

Thanks to South Philly Review staff writer Bill Chenevert for letting us reprint this story about Alissa and her Small Fry friends. It originally appeared on Nov. 26, 2014.



About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

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