Enjoying a meal at Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse in Rye could also help Westchester residents who are in need of food, shelter, and education.
Frankie & Johnnie's is one of more than 30 restaurants participating in Entree to Hope, an initiative created last year by a coalition of three Westchester County non-profits: Food Bank for Westchester, Grace Church Community Center in White Plains, and Literacy Volunteers of Westchester County Inc.
Until March 15, restaurants will give patrons a card asking them to make a small donation of $1 or more to Entree to Hope along with their check.
Fran Dolan, front desk coordinator at Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse, said last year the restaurant raised more than $200 in one month for the program.
"We did it last year and it was received pretty well," Dolan said. "It seemed like an easy way to help local organizations."
Over eight percent of Westchester County's population lives below the poverty line of $22,050 for a family of four. The Westchester County Department of Social Services currently provides housing to 145 families at four shelters.
Entree to Hope will give 90 cents of every dollar raised to efforts to provide food, housing, and educational assistance to thousands of struggling Westchester residents.
The idea of soliciting charitable donations from restaurant patrons has long been successful in the United Kingdom. Chris Schwartz, development director for Grace Church Community Center, first came across the idea while dining at an upscale restaurant in London.
Schwartz said that last year many restaurant patrons were in disbelief that about 25 percent of Westchester residents are in need.
"The unfortunate reality of the economy will bring a lot of this closer to home for a lot of people," Schwartz said. "We found last year that some people didn't believe that there was any poverty in Westchester."
Christina Rohatynskyj, executive director of Food Bank for Westchester, said that the face of hunger in the county is changing because of the recession.
"Many folks are living within their budget, but it only takes one unexpected expenditure to blow their budget," Rohatynskyj said. "The first thing to go is food."
Children aged 18 and under represent 36 percent of an estimated 200,000 Westchester residents who go hungry or are in danger of doing so, according to a 2007-2008 annual report by the Food Bank for Westchester.
"People are making choices between paying the rent, utilities, medical attention and food. No one should have to make such choices," Rohatynskyj said.
While last year's Entree to Hope fundraiser broke even, Schwartz is hopeful that this year's program will not only help to raise awareness, but more money as well.
"It's an educational process and it's slow but we're hoping promotions like this will help to get the word out there," Schwartz said. "I think with the recession more people are starting to realize there's a lot more poverty and a lot more need."
Peter Kelly, chef and owner of X20-Xaviars on the Hudson in Yonkers, another participating restaurant, said it was important for his restaurant to be involved in Entrée to Hope because the program will educate people about issues within the county.
"Westchester, as a community just north of Manhattan, people don't look at it as a place where people are going hungry every night or don't have a place to live or don't have access to education," he said. ""New programs take time. I think it's really a matter of getting the word out."
Rosa Boone, Executive Director of the Westchester Coalition for the Hungry and Homeless, said that with high layoff and unemployment rates in the county, more people who were once middle class are visiting the coalitions network of 141 soup kitchens, food pantries and emergency shelters.
"We are seeing the disparity now. It's not just the working poor anymore, it's those people who were middle class who are now in need," Boone said.
While Entree to Hope is seeking multiple small donations to aid those in immediate need, it has a larger goal of helping struggling Westchester residents in the long term.
"Our goal, really, is to help all of these people develop the skills, or find the housing, whatever it is they need, to take that step so they don't need our services anymore," Schwartz said.
Patricia Rajala, President and CEO of Literacy Volunteers of Westchester County Inc., said she believes Entree to Hope will help raise awareness about poverty in the county.
"I hope that it builds excitement and awareness," she said. "The restaurants are acting as conduits in providing information and opportunity and hopefully their patrons will be encouraged to participate."
Dolan said that Frankie & Johnnie's Steakhouse participates in many community fundraisers and that charitable work is especially important in the current economic climate.
"I think, in general, we all know that there are people in need," Dolan said. "Everyone has a heightened sensitivity now to people that may have needs who may not have before and that the neediest need help more than ever."