Planet Perk offers free meals, smiles to children in need


Joseph Schulz /The Advance-Titan. Planet Perk employees wear gloves and masks as they prepare free meals for Oshkosh children in the wake of the pandemic.

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

When Ken Osmond became the owner of Planet Perk Cafe and Catering in 2008, he never imagined that 12 years later he’d be delivering free meals to children in the midst of a global pandemic.

Each morning Osmond and the Planet Perk staff prepare hundreds of meals before leaving the restaurant around 7:30 a.m. to deliver the food to children who can’t make it to the Oshkosh Area School District’s grab-and-go meal pick-up locations.

The idea for the free meal program originated when the district announced it was closing. Osmond’s wife, Marlo, is a school teacher, and at the time it was unclear if the district would be providing meals for students on the free or reduced meal programs.

“I didn’t know what they were going to do, so I just decided, ‘Hey we’re downtown, maybe there’s a few families that would need a helping hand,’” Osmond said.

When the school district announced that it would have meal pick-up sites, Osmond said families began reaching out to Planet Perk because they couldn’t make it to those sites.

Some of the free meals delivered go to children who live in single parent households where the parent has to work, and sometimes a parent may have a disability and cannot take children to the district’s pick-up site. Other times a grandparent may be watching the children and sometimes a child or their family member may be immunocompromised, he said.

Joseph Schulz/The Advance-Titan Ken Osmond and Planet Perk employees have been making hundreds of lunches for Oshkosh children since the district closed all schools.

“The school district is doing a fantastic job; they’re offering thousands of meals through pick up at a variety of locations,” Osmond said. “[But], there’s some people that can’t avail themselves to that service.”

Families in need can reach out to Planet Perk directly via phone or email, but some don’t have a phone or email and have been referred by friends or neighbors, he noted.

Those using the program only need to provide a number of children in their household, and any dietary restrictions the children have, Osmond said.

“We don’t ask for proof of anything; it’s all on the honor system,” he said.

Once a person is signed up on the program, Planet Perk preps two paper lunch bag meals per child, one for breakfast and one for lunch.

Breakfasts can vary from yogurt and granola, to cereal with milk, to hot oatmeal. A piece of fruit and a juice box are included with every meal.

For lunch, the restaurant will make either ham, turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with a bag of chips and something to drink.

Tamara’s The Cake Guru cupcake shop has recently partnered with Planet Perk to provide desserts for the lunches, Osmond said.

“For the kids that have birthdays, they’ve made special desserts,” Osmond said.

Beyond providing meals, Osmond also tries to provide children with smiles. Planet Perk has given most of the homes sidewalk chalk, and they’ve donated comic books. Sometimes Osmond plays tic-tac-toe with the kids through the window of their homes using dry erase markers, or draws pictures for the children on the window.

“I’m not that great of an artist, but it kind of picks up the kids’ spirits when you draw flowers for a little girl or you can spell their name backwards,” he said.

Osmond wants to keep serving meals throughout the pandemic, but he said Planet Perk is facing a tough financial situation as a result of state initiatives to enforce social distancing.

He’s had to close his locations on Algoma Boulevard and inside the Menominee Nation Arena, and business at the City Center location is down 73%.

Osmond said he will continue serving free meals to families who can’t make it to the school district’s pick-up locations as long as he can afford to.

“This week we’ll spend approximately $1,950, over a two-week period we’ll spend $4,000 and over a month we’ll spend $8,000,” he said.

The community is doing what it can to keep the program going, so far donating about $2,500. One recent moment that sticks with Osmond happened Sunday.

He had just gotten to work, and noticed a man standing on the sidewalk near the coffee shop entrance that he’d never seen before. The man was older, with messy hair and wore oversized and slightly dirty clothes.

Osmond made eye contact with the man, waved and said, “Good morning.”

The man said good morning back, reached into his pocket and said: “I have something for you. It ain’t much, but I gotta give it to you.”

The man then set $1.53 on the ground outside the shop. Osmond asked, “What’s this for?”

The man replied: “It ain’t much I know, but it’s for the kids. The little ones need to eat. I heard you guys were giving food to kids and thought I should try to help.”

Osmond asked the man what his name was, and the man said, “It don’t matter.” Osmond tried to give the money back and offered the man a hot meal and coffee.

The man refused and said: “I got more than I need and that’s plenty. We all gotta give what we can.” The man then turned around and began to walk away.

Osmond asked him if he could do anything for the man. The man replied, “You just did, brother,” and waved as he walked away.

“I was cautious and suspicious at first and then it turned into, holy hell, I’m dealing with a person who’s better than I am,” Osmond said of the incident.

He added that he’s keeping the $1.53 in his office and doesn’t know what he wants to do with it yet, but he’s considering framing it.

After Osmond shared the story on Facebook, he came to work the next day and found an envelope was slid under the door.

Photo courtesy Ken Osmond. Planet Perk owner Ken Osmond found this envelope with $153 under his door. The anonymous donor wrote that he or she was inspired because of the good he is doing.

The envelope contained $153 and a note written with blue ink, that read: “Because the man who gave his last $1.53 inspired me. Because of the good work you do. Because I received reduced lunch and was made fun of. Because my dad taught me true giving is anonymous. Because I’m able to.”

Osmond said Planet Perk is trying to honor the community’s generosity as long as it can, and using remarkable moments as “fuel” to keep going.

“This is what I always knew my community to be,” he said. “I believe in all the corny things about America coming together and being a part of something greater than ourselves.”

Osmond knew when he started the program that donations at most would only get about half of the money needed to provide the free meals.

He doesn’t expect Planet Perk to be fully open until June, but the restaurant is currently serving carry out and delivery. Osmond expects the pandemic to be a slow burn for everyone, but he wants to continue providing free meals for children throughout.

“I think if we are running too low on money and things get pretty dire for us, we’ll find another way,” Osmond said. “We’ll figure something out, and keep trying to make something good out of something awful.”

To help Planet Perk continue delivering free meals to children, people can donate paper grocery bags or money at the cafe. People can also visit and select charity on the order online menu to make a monetary donation.