By Bobby Parker and Laura Holloway
Imagine your children, or your nieces or nephews, or your grandchildren. Think of the joy they bring to your life, the new things they are learning every day, the smiles they give for no reason at all. Think of how you would do anything in the world to keep them healthy, happy, and safe. Now imagine that there is no food in between lunch on Friday and breakfast on Monday at school because there just isn’t enough money.
In 2010, Tiffanie Nelson, the Founder and Executive Director of Food for Thought Outreach, Inc., found out that a few children at her son’s school were going without food on the weekends because there was nothing to eat at home. Just like you, she couldn’t believe this was a reality, especially in our small community. She started researching, and was stunned to learn that while public schools received government assistance to provide breakfast and lunch for children on school days, on the weekends, if parents don’t have enough money, children are forced to fend for themselves. As she dug deeper, Tiffanie discovered that thousands of children right here in our communities are suffering from food insecurity every day, which means that many times these children don’t know from where their next meal will come at any time.
Heartbreakingly, one in seven children in Okaloosa and Walton counties suffers from food insecurity. This was a truth that shook her to her very core, and a little voice inside of her said, ‘You can help.’
From money out of her own grocery budget and with help from her children, her church and a few friends, Tiffanie began sending food home with these children over the weekends. Volunteers would show up at her house every week to pack backpacks in Tiffanie’s kitchen. From this, a much-needed organization was formed: Food for Thought Outreach, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization that provides backpacks filled with food for students who are dependent on free and reduced school meals so that they have healthy, easy-to-prepare meals and snacks over the weekends and holidays.
Since 2010 her mission has touched the heart of the community, and Food for Thought Outreach, Inc., now serves over 3,000 students in over 30 schools in Okaloosa and Walton counties. By providing these children with a simple backpack of food, Tiffanie and Food for Thought are supporting the children’s physical development, removing fear and insecurity and empowering them to grow into productive students and happy children. In fact, studies have shown that Food for Thought’s programs have impacted students in numerous ways, including less school absences, fewer sick days, better grades in math, and a higher likelihood of graduation.
With remarkable faith and an innate need to help others while providing the community with a place to serve, Tiffanie’s vision is being realized. During the 2016-2017 school year, Food for Thought grew their outreach by over 70% compared to the previous year. During the 2017-2018 school year, the organization grew 160% to serve 32 schools and more than 3,000 students. More than 240 active volunteers help organize donated food, pack backpacks and deliver packs to schools all over Okaloosa and Walton counties. Food for Thought now serves 85% of Walton County schools and 50% of Okaloosa County schools. (27% of Walton County and 25% of Okaloosa County students suffer from food insecurity.)
More than 60,000 backpacks were distributed this year, each containing 10 food items equating to over 600,000 food items distributed. The program also considers the needs of teachers (many of whom buy snacks for their students with their own money). Food for Thought distributed 4,104 snack bags to teachers and school nurses which contained more than 244,000 snacks as part of the monthly snack bags that combat immediate signs of hunger in the schools. Overall, between the backpacks, snacks and holiday services, more than one million food items were distributed this past year!
Currently, Food for Thought has five initiatives providing hunger relief: (1) weekly backpacks during the school year; (2) monthly snacks provided to teachers in schools receiving Food for Thought services to fight immediate signs of hunger; (3) holiday services to help feed families during long breaks from school including the summer; (4) garden initiatives at select schools and at the Destin Pantry; and (5) the Emeril Lagasse Full Circle Kitchen that provides invaluable life skills and additional sources of food to some of the most at-risk students in Okaloosa and Walton counties.
With its beginnings in Santa Rosa Beach, in 2016, with the help of the Destin Rotary Club, DKM Builders, and other community members, Food for Thought opened its second pantry in Destin. These two alone cover 2,320 square miles of Okaloosa and Walton counties. This year, with the help of Archiscapes, LLC and Ryan Harp Construction, a third pantry in Defuniak Springs is being established.
A hero doesn’t have to slay dragons, hit the winning home run, or fight crime by night wearing a mask and cape. A true hero just has to be someone who hears a little voice inside that says, ‘You Can Help’ and then do everything she can to answer that call.