Kids at a Philadelphia day care center served by archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services display Easter baskets they received from the agency, April 12. (David Stier)

Dozens of young children have received an early Easter surprise, thanks to an archdiocesan hunger relief agency.

On April 12, staff from Nutritional Development Services (NDS) loaded up 145 Easter baskets for delivery to three Philadelphia-based day care centers, all of which the agency serves through the federally funded Child Care Food Program (CCFP).

Plush bunnies, pudding cups, snack pouches and, of course, candy-filled plastic eggs made for “jam-packed” baskets that brought joy to their recipients, said David Stier, assistant director of community relations for NDS.

The gifts were hand-assembled and donated by Bucks County resident Molly Thomas, who said she typically spends weeks in her basement “bunny den” preparing baskets for several organizations.

“Stuffed animals, books, toys, candy, crayons – you name it; whatever I can collect throughout the year (for the baskets),” she said, adding that she fills “over 4,000” plastic Easter eggs each year.

The sweet treats are rounding out the 1.4 million meals the agency expects to provide through CCFP this fiscal year, said Robert Jones, director of government programs for NDS.

Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and administered locally through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, CCFP ensures that kids in some 175 child care centers, afterschool programs and emergency shelters served by NDS can count on a full and nutritious plate.

Since 1995, NDS has partnered with CCFP to provide well over 60 million meals – including breakfast, lunch and occasional snacks – to kids aged 6 weeks to 18 years.

In addition, NDS administers several other federal food assistance programs while managing a privately funded network of pantries throughout the five-county archdiocesan area.

Demand for all of NDS’s programs soared throughout the COVID pandemic, and the agency has experienced a renewed spike in client numbers as inflation has escalated.

The agency is looking to expand its reach still further, said Jones, noting that its total number of CCFP sites “remains down by about 50 from pre-COVID days.”

“God has certainly been good to us in enabling us to rebuild,” he said.

And while “NDS is very conscious about striving to deliver healthy food …even the (USDA) healthy food pyramid includes a small space for fats and sweets,” said Stier.

The inclusion of “fun alternatives to candy” such as “activity books, toys and stuffed animals” balances the baskets, offering a model NDS encourages schools to adopt when catering “celebrations and fundraisers,” he said.

Beyond the bunnies and gummies, the baskets are “a source of Easter joy for children,” said Stier.

“Easter is our most precious Christian and Catholic holiday, and Jesus knows how precious children are,” he said, quoting Luke 18:16: “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”