Starbucks East Setauket and nonprofit target childhood hunger

Starbucks East Setauket and nonprofit target childhood hunger

Barbie Lux, store manager at East Setauket Starbucks, left, and Irene Michalos, founder and executive director of Agape Meals for Kids. Photo by Raymond Janis

A local Starbucks location and a nonprofit organization are joining forces to alleviate childhood food insecurity on Long Island.

Last month, The Starbucks Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Starbucks Coffee Company, awarded $10,000 to the Mount Sinai-based nonprofit Agape Meals for Kids through its Neighborhood Grants program. The grant was mediated by the Starbucks East Setauket location on Route 25A. Through the partnership, leaders of both organizations are working toward an overall goal of eradicating hunger on Long Island and across America.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service indicates that 10.2 percent of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2021. Long Island Cares estimates as many as 230,000 Long Islanders are food insecure, 68,000 of whom are children.

“We find that there are [nearly] 70,000 children on Long Island alone that live with chronic hunger and food insecurity,” said Irene Michalos, founder and executive director of Agape Meals for Kids. “That number is horrible, and we need to do something about it.”

Agape is 100% volunteer-run, providing weekend meals for students who rely upon free lunch programs. After being founded in the fall of 2021, the nonprofit organization quickly began branching out into school districts across Long Island, its program supporting students from Comsewogue, Shoreham-Wading River and Brentwood schools, along with The Thomas Emanuel Early Childhood Center in Corona, Queens.

Witnessing the problem from up close, Michalos has observed food insecure children often exhibit an inability to focus in class, show a tendency to act out and can have health outcomes.

“When you’re hungry, you feel aggravated, frustrated,” she said. “Their behaviors are interpreted as naughty, but they’re not — they’re hungry.”

Barbie Lux, store manager at East Setauket Starbucks, explained how the partnership with Agape first came together. Lux became aware of the program through a mutual contact at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Port Jefferson. After meeting Michalos and learning about Agape’s community impact, she described herself as fully on board.

“I found out about the amazing work that she does with the kids,” the store manager said. “You tell me you’re feeding children, and I’m there to help you.”

Within the New York Metro Starbucks region, which comprises stores across Long Island and New York City, Lux began raising awareness about Agape. First at her store and then others throughout the region, word soon got out.

Lux and Michalos coordinated a food packing event in December, during which Starbucks staff and Agape volunteers filled backpacks with donated foodstuffs, which were later distributed to children in the program. Since then, the two organizations have forged even closer ties.

The Starbucks Foundation’s Neighborhood Grants program enables Starbucks staff to vote for a nonprofit organization reflective of their organizational and philanthropic priorities. Lux detailed her behind-the-scenes efforts to generate votes for Agape.

“To get 250 to 260 partners to vote for one organization, I hounded them,” she said. “I started to cry when I saw that Agape got $10,000.”

Agape currently feeds approximately 200 children. Michalos said the grant money allows the organization to grow considerably.

“We can comfortably see ourselves, through this incredible grant, being able to add 25 more children from September to December and another 25 between January and June,” she said.

With this momentum, Michalos and her organization are just getting off the ground. She outlined an ambitious goal for both the region and the nation.

“I think that childhood food insecurity and alleviating poverty in this country is something that we can do,” the nonprofit founder said. “There are many programs that we can expand and support to meet the needs of our families and children here.”

Lux added that public awareness of food insecurity represents an essential first step toward a resolution, noting that responsible stewardship of food waste would also play a role.

“There’s so much waste in the world, so much waste of food,” she said. “Just donate it in a timely manner so that it’s fresh and everything … because a child could be hungry.”

Along with East Setauket Starbucks, Agape collection baskets remain open at various Starbucks coffee shops, including at Stony Brook, St. James, Miller Place and Centereach. 

Lux said she hopes to continue strengthening the partnership between Starbucks and Agape, with plans for another food-packing event and related activities already in the works.

The store manager said she does not plan on ending this partnership: “I’ve had so many people I’ve worked with, but the day I met [Michalos], I was like, ‘She’s doing good, we need to help her.’ So it’s not going to end.”