Mark Mirando

Mark Mirando, owner of State Street Diner in Conneaut, Ohio, is offering free meals to children in need.

CONNEAUT, Ohio — In the fight against childhood hunger, police in northeastern Ohio will soon be "ticketing" children as part of one restaurateur's mission to fill empty stomachs.

Mark Mirando is the owner of State Street Diner in downtown Conneaut, a town of about 12,000 in the northernmost corner of Ohio.  With the help of the local police department, Mirando is working to insure that all kids have access to hot, nourishing meals, even when they aren't getting that at home.

The program, which is still taking shape, is designed to reach as many families as possible. When police see a child who they believe may not always have enough food, they will give the child a voucher. That voucher, Mirando said, will be good for one free meal at his restaurant.

Mirando said he got the idea for the program when he heard friends talking about how some children in town don’t want to go home because food there is scarce. He also said he watches children he suspects are in need walk past his restaurant every day.

“I have the best view in town,” he said. “I can tell some aren’t doing well.”

About 61 percent of k-12 students in Conneaut are eligible for free or reduced lunch, which is roughly 16 percent higher than Ohio's average.

Police officers are the perfect people to distribute the vouchers, Mirando said, because they "have their fingers on the pulse of the community."

Conneaut Police Chief Michael Colby said the department is glad to help. 

“It’s a great idea,” Colby said. “When we go to a call and see a kid who may need help, we will give him or her a voucher. Unfortunately, we do see a lot of (hungry children). We see quite a bit.”

Kids will pick from a special menu the restaurant will offer, Mirando said. The meals won’t be fancy, but will feature filling and nutritious food, he said.

The kids will be monitored at the restaurant by volunteers who have stepped forward, including former teachers, Mirando said. “A lot of people have offered to help,” he said.

Community leaders are impressed by the pending voucher program. “I was just speechless when I heard about it,” Diana DiPofi, Conneaut Board of Education president, said at a meeting last week.

Todd writes for the Ashtabula, Ohio Star Beacon.

Recommended for you