Shannon Kuhn: Dianne's Restaurant helps the homeless, one bowl at a time

Food & CultureFebruary 21, 2014 

For more than 20 years, an Anchorage woman has quietly been making a difference for thousands of young people through her crock pot.

That woman is Dianne Tydings.

Tydings is a co-owner of Dianne's Restaurant, which for decades was just down the street from Covenant House (the charitable organization recently moved to a larger facility on A Street).

From the opening day on Dec. 21, 1989, Tydings pledged to do her part to share with those in need and has since donated her homemade soup to Bean's Cafe, Covenant House and the Alaska Youth and Family Network.

"We produce wonderful, nourishing food in our kitchen and know people find comfort in what we create," Tydings said. "Food should be shared and not wasted."

According to the Anchorage Coalition on Homelessness, the number of homeless children in Anchorage has grown 13 percent since the 2003-2004 school year. The Anchorage School District and the Anchorage Police Department estimate 3,000 to 5,000 Anchorage youths under the age of 20 are at risk of homelessness.

Covenant House estimates that half of the teens who seek out their facility have been assaulted, often by family or friends. Two-thirds have dropped out of school. Many struggle with mental health problems.

The organization's website describes a grim reality: "On the streets, youth have few choices and face many risks, including victimization, drug abuse, dropping out of school, teen pregnancy and health-threatening conditions."

Tydings said Dianne's has always operated with the belief that it is "a community responsibility to give back."

I met Tydings and business partner Debbie Jaso over coconut cream pie at the restaurant. They first became friends in their 20s and their friendship has been defined through food and place.

"Dianne and I have been friends forever," Jaso said. "We've seen each other grow up."

First arriving in Alaska in 1972, Tydings homesteaded 160 acres at the base of Sheep Mountain. Food was different back then, simpler. People hunted moose, fished for salmon and grew vegetables in the rich soil.

"I used to make rabbit pizza," Tydings laughed. "It was an all-day event."

They reminisced about bringing all the kids out to the cabin. Raising their families together. Running a business. Giving back.

"There is nothing like the power of women," Jaso said. She smiled.

Dianne's Restaurant always has a soup of the day, like South African peanut, split pea, sausage lentil gumbo, served with a whole wheat honey bun on the side.

Lentil black bean. Hearty vegetable. Chicken cheddar chowder.

The soup from Dianne's is usually served at dinnertime in the Drop-In Center, and for many youths it is their first meal of the day. In their last fiscal year, the Covenant House Drop-In Center provided services to an average of 58 kids every day. Kramer said the Drop-In Center is the bridge between their Street Outreach Teams (meeting youths on the street -- wherever they may be) and their Youth Engagement Center (which encompasses their Crisis Shelter and Community Services Center).

"Some of our kids that used the drop-in service will call and ask what the soup of the day is. With no irony, it has become an engagement tool for us to reach kids," said Kramer. If the youths come inside to eat a hot bowl of soup, it's easier to get them thinking about all the services Covenant House offers, like education assistance or health services, Kramer said.

"Each time they come back, we are able to build up our relationship with that youth. A bowl of homemade, lovingly made hot soup gives us an opportunity to start a conversation in a way that a bowl of cold cereal or a sandwich may not be able to," Kramer said.

"Not only does Dianne provide sustenance, she is helping these kids have a future."

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about local food and culture.


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