updated 11/21/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/21/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST
Asleep in his Anchorage apartment, Elgin Jones heard a loud voice say, "Feed the children!" Most folks would have rolled over and forgotten all about it by morning, but for Jones the August 1996 dream was truly a wake-up call. Within two weeks the childless retired newspaper editor had contacted a recreation center in the poorest part of town and started cooking nutritious free dinners there for kids, funded out of his own pocket. "I don't force the kids to eat vegetables; I persuade them," says Jones, now 65, who has served up more than half a million meals so far. "I make tuna casserole with peas so good they forget the peas are in there."
Each weeknight 75 youngsters sit down for a healthy meal like hamburger with sides of broccoli and apples cooked by Jones—who lives off Social Security and takes no salary from his nonprofit Kids' Kitchen. (Local schools and churches give his foundation financial help.) "It's from his heart and done for all the right reasons," says superintendent of schools Carol Comeau. But the props that mean the most come from the kids themselves, many of whom call him Grampa. "I like the Sloppy Joes," says Denisha Crowe, 12. "It tastes like real food."