fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

Having Their Backs

Securing Children’s Futures through Food

By Sallie W. Boyles

The start of kindergarten is a momentous occasion that can be as much of a growth experience for parents as it is for their little ones. The Nelsons never anticipated what they’d learn and subsequently accomplish as a family and a community upon enrolling their eldest of three children in a Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, public school.

Nine years ago, Tiffanie Nelson was filling out kindergarten enrollment paperwork when she encountered some surprising questions. Were issues like hunger and homelessness concerns for her family? Clearly, they were not, and she wondered why her neighborhood’s elementary school would inquire about students’ basic life needs. “I have never met anyone who thought hunger in children existed in their community,” Nelson says. Neither did she. Nevertheless, she recalls, “I went home and started Googling for information about children and hunger, and I came across the term food insecurity.

The USDA defines the condition as “a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

“First,” Nelson relays, “I thought how horrible it must feel to be a parent in that situation, and what the stress and anxiety would feel like from not being able to provide for a child. Second, I imagined a child, sitting in a chair, trying to focus on homework but being riddled with hunger.” Wasting no time, she called the school’s principal. Their conversation was eye-opening. Yes, students in their elementary depended on the school’s breakfasts and lunches for meals, and that wasn’t enough.

“I wasn’t in a position to start a charity,” says Nelson, “but I was driven to start an effort.” She requested help from her pastor, and with a three-hundred-dollar donation from their church, they provided food for six children that week. “We quickly found we could serve an unmet need.”

In 2010, Nelson established Food For Thought Outreach, a privately funded 501(c)(3) charitable organization which works to “bridge the gap between school meals during the weekend and holiday breaks.” Through a coordinated effort, requiring two-hundred-fifty volunteer hours per week, Food For Thought delivers health-conscious foods (for breakfast, snacks, and the main meal) weekly to three thousand children who receive either free or subsidized meals at thirty-two schools within Florida’s Walton and Okaloosa counties.

Students from the Boys & Girls Club
Students from the Boys & Girls Club of the Emerald Coast with donations for a pantry-stocking event for Food For Thought
Photo courtesy of Food for Thought Outreach

“We use six thousand pieces of produce each week,” Nelson reveals. The sheer volume—their first food order of the 2018–2019 school year arrived at Food For Thought’s headquarters in Santa Rosa Beach on seventeen pallets—necessitates using food brokers to source the best deals. A variety of events entice individuals, businesses, and various organizations to contribute requested items, but Nelson says, “We cannot depend on donated food to run our program.” Spending a half-million dollars on food annually, Food For Thought requires monetary assistance, including grants, from multiple sources.

In her role as executive director, Nelson draws from her former high-level management career in retail to lead the operation. A committed board of directors, well-trained volunteers, and an engaged community are also imperative in meeting the challenges. Nelson clarifies that they “receive no state funding, and we are not a chapter of another organization.” Food For Thought’s independent status is important. “We are allowed to address our programming based on how the schools need us to do that,” she explains. The schools, in turn, willingly cooperate.

“We are most known for our backpack program,” says Nelson. Food For Thought fills backpacks with goods such as apples and bread and gets as close to placing the food in students’ hands as possible: delivering to their classrooms. Taking food to the source has always been the objective.

With programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as Food Stamps, people often wonder why Food For Thought is necessary. “We aren’t a parent program,” Nelson answers. “We are a child-focused organization. If a parent at home isn’t making the best decisions, the child shouldn’t suffer. Every student, every child, deserves to eat three times a day.”

In some cases, children don’t live with their parents. Many are in foster care, homeless, or living with friends. Others, too young to reach a grocery store or assemble a meal, are home alone while parents work. “Five-year-old children have no capacity or impact on how they live,” Nelson contends. “Our goal is to empower them so they can get the most out of their education, stay in school, graduate, and become productive citizens.”

Food For Thought fills backpacks with goods such as apples and bread and gets as close to placing the food in students’ hands as possible: delivering to their classrooms.

Currently spending five dollars per child per week, Nelson says, “Our commitment is to provide ten food items that are as healthy as they can be within our budget. The food must also be easy to open and prepare.” Children with food allergies receive adjusted selections.

Assigning a number to every child in the program to identify all backpacks by numbers instead of names protects students’ privacy. Even the volunteers who transport the backpacks by vans to the schools and distribute them to the classrooms reference a mapping system with numbers. Without any fanfare, a child knows which one to grab and, days later, to drop off the empty bag at the school’s return station. Likewise, the backpacks are nondescript to avoid drawing attention.

“Accepting a backpack is harder for kids in middle and high school because of peer pressure,” Nelson acknowledges. But hunger motivates them. “We see up to a sixty-percent increase in school attendance during our service days because the kids make sure they get to school for the food.”

Food for Thought Outreach
Photo courtesy of Food for Thought Outreach

In 2017, thanks to a generous grant from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, Food For Thought initiated a program of teaching nutrition, food preparation, and related life skills to high school students who are enrolled in Food For Thought. In addition to the physical facility, Emeril’s Full Circle Kitchen (located at Food For Thought’s headquarters) recruits restaurant partners and local chefs as instructors. An extension of that program, the Full Circle Garden, gives students the experiences of planning, planting, and maintaining a garden and later harvesting and using what they’ve grown in their culinary classes.

Indeed, Food For Thought is sowing seeds to impact generations, all because a mom paused to consider a poignant question on a standard school form and then thoughtfully responded.

“We have truly created our own little community of volunteers,” says Nelson, sharing the credit. “Food For Thought is part of the fabric of our family and a lot of others. Once people hear about what we do, they realize there are students in their own kids’ classrooms who are taking our help and that the need is close.” Consequently, although the charity can put money to work more efficiently than food donations, Nelson understands the value of having people take that first backpack home to fill. “You need to understand what it feels like to pack a backpack and return it,” she says. The sensation of handling something that represents so much to a hungry child is hard to ignore.

— V —

Since children are not in school to receive meals during the holidays, volunteers and contributions are critical during this season. Food For Thought Outreach wholeheartedly welcomes those who are interested in learning more about giving their time or money at any level to visit the website at FFTFL.org.

Sallie W. Boyles works as a freelance journalist, ghostwriter, copywriter, and editor through Write Lady Inc., her Atlanta-based company. With an MBA in marketing, she marvels at the power of words, particularly in business and politics, but loves nothing more than relaying extraordinary personal stories that are believable only because they are true.

Read Responsibly

VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail