While some families sit down for hearty home-cooked meals during the holidays, Food for Thought founder Tiffanie Shelton is just trying to keep children from being hungry while school is out.
"During Christmas break, some kids will miss well over 20 meals," she said.
Shelton founded Food for Thought three years ago when she was looking to volunteer somewhere with her children. After some "basic Googling" Shelton was startled at the statistics of what food insecurity looked like for children.
She then began a backpack program at Butler Elementary, which provides backpacks full of a weekend's worth of full food — typically some fresh fruit, a loaf of whole wheat bread, peanut butter and healthy snacks. In the non-profit's first year, she served 48 families.
"What we hope to do is meet basic needs so that the kids' minds and bodies can develop," Shelton said. "There's just no way a child can concentrate in school on an empty stomach."
Providing food to 2,000 students in Walton County and with the recent addition of Destin Elementary, Shelton said she is serving the underserved area.
"Government food pantries go to schools with more than 50 percent of children on free or reduced lunches," she explains. "I don't believe you can understand who is the hungrier child. A need is a need no matter where you live."
Shelton said she certainly sees the demand for the Food for Thought services beyond Walton and Okaloosa County, but says a lot needs to be done before the young non-profit can take that step.
"I would like to serve elementary to high school," she said. "And teach older kids a skill on top of giving them food — offer more comprehensive services, but that's still years away."
To enroll in the Food for Thought backpack program, children who receive free or reduced lunches go home with a permission slip to be signed by parents. The slips also help determine whether the child has any allergies. Once they are enrolled, backpacks are delivered every Friday, discreetly, to their classrooms.
In the past three years, Shelton has seen a steady rise in permission slips going home.
"With the increase, we are sending out as much food in a week as we were in a month last year," she said.
To help meet that need, Shelton relies on the community. Since Shelton is the only paid Food for Thought employee, volunteers help ensure that backpacks are filled with food and pantries are well organized. Organizations such as Destin Charity Wine Auction help supplement the non-profit's budget. Donations of food, money or even time is always appreciated.
"It takes the entire community to help each other," she said. "And I can't say enough to how helpful this one has been."